John Baesler was a boy in Bensheim, West Germany in the 1980s when his family — watching a crime drama on TV — heard a knock at the front door one evening. On the other side were two members of his family he met for the first time that night: His father’s niece and her daughter, who had arrived there after a daring escape from then-Communist-occupied East Germany.
“That was an amazing experience,” said Baesler, now an associate professor of history at Saginaw Valley State University. “They had escaped through Hungary and showed up at our door.”
Not long after that, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Cold War’s grip slipped loose. The two German nations reconciled. Families reunited without fear. The anxiety of those divided days went the way of history.
It’s that distancing history that Baesler chases today. With the help of his students, he is leading a research effort aimed at capturing the experience of living in West Germany during a Cold War that spanned four decades, including the 28-year existence of the Berlin Wall. For now, the project involves interviewing United States military veterans stationed near communities such as his hometown in Bensheim, just south of Frankfurt with a population of 40,000, although he may expand the work’s scope depending on his findings.
“I want to answer the question, ‘How did that everyday interaction with each other influence Germans and Americans, and how did that influence the Americans when they came back to America?,’” he said.
“There was an everyday diplomacy between Germans citizens and American soldiers. Especially in small German cities, that represented a major change in daily life.”
Baesler was witness to much of that cultural interplay. He remembers the weddings between American soldiers and German daughters. He listened to the U.S. Armed Forces’ radio stations. He saw their military vehicles traveling the streets. He enjoyed their food.
“Once a year, the Americans in our town had an open-door event, where they invited us in,” Baesler said. “They played really good music, and I remember eating marshmallows for the first time there. Germans didn’t have marshmallows.”
More than 20 million U.S. military veterans have served inside Germany's borders.
Already, Baesler and his students have heard stories from 14 veterans — recording their accounts on video, audio and paper — and he continues to search for more witnesses of that history.
“There are so many stories to tell, and I’m interested to hear them,” he said. “This is a labor of love for me.”
For being too much of a distraction in seventh grade, Sylvia Fromherz was asked to spend the rest of class sitting outside in her Catholic school’s atrium. It was a beautiful spring day in Orego. The teacher’s decision hardly felt like a punishment.
It wasn’t the serenity of the setting that stands out about the experience to Fromherz now, years later. Instead, that day became a watershed moment in her life when Fromherz discovered the orb weaver spider sharing space with her in that atrium.
“I watched it as it built such an intricate, geometrically-precise web,” she recalled. “It was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen.”
That moment of biological beauty launched Fromherz on an academic path that led to her position today at SVSU.
“It’s been an unlikely journey,” the assistant professor of biology said.
Fromherz grew up one of 11 children on a dairy farm straddling the Oregon coast. Aside from the Catholic community, there was little contact with the outside world. Rare TV allowances afforded her exposure to nature-themed shows with hosts such as Jacques Cousteau. Some of her earliest reading material were decades-outdated science books purchased for pennies from local auctions.
Her love for science inspired a high school teacher to educate Fromherz on what he had learned while earning a college degree in forestry and oceanography. Later, a field trip to Oregon State University — the only college Fromherz had gazed up to that point in her life — convinced her to pursue her passion in a postsecondary setting.
She went on to earn a bachelor’s in marine biology at that same institution and, later, moved to the east coast to earn a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at Brandeis University. In between, she spent two years at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
She has remained involved in higher education ever since, transitioning from student to a research-driven educator intent on empowering students who share her passion for STEM.
When Fromherz joined SVSU in fall 2015, she continued a student-supported research project she began years earlier at another institution. She and her undergraduate students are studying sensorimotor development in the embryonic chick.
Her passion to promote STEM extends beyond specific research. In her classrooms, she uses active learning strategies and online enhancements such as recorded online lectures to help her students better connect with the science she began to love as early as childhood. The practice allows students to watch a recording of Fromherz teach biology on their computer screens from a cozy spot outdoors, near where the spiders sometimes weave their webs.
There’s a photo on the wall of Tammy Elliott’s third floor Wickes office. In the foreground, there are trees and bushes, capped with white, untouched snow. Peeking out from a gap in the landscape is the red water tower that once stood tall on campus before it was removed in 2000.
“When I used to work at the Graphics Center, I would tell people they could find me by going to the building near the tower,” said Elliott, now SVSU’s special assistant to the provost. “It stood out.”
Much the same way as the tower once stood out for others, SVSU stood out from other higher education institutions for Elliott. As one of 136 seniors at Beaverton High School in 1989, nearly all of her college-bound classmates chose larger universities. Elliott wanted to take a route that seemed more adventurous; something that might allow her stand out from the rest.
“I wanted to try something different than what everyone else I knew was trying,” she said. “It worked out for me. I haven’t left since.”
Despite her 28-years-and-counting stay with the university, she hasn’t lost her appetite for challenging herself with new endeavors.
Elliott’s undergraduate years were spent studying graphic design. By the time she graduated in May 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in the subject, she already had been hired for more than a year as a full-time employee in the campus Graphics Center.
Soon, though, she felt the itch for a new challenge. The same year she graduated, she was hired as the administrative secretary at the office now known as University Communications. She retained that same title when she moved on to a new challenge at the College of Education in 2003 and then another new challenge at Academic Affairs in 2011. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in communications.
At Academic Affairs, Elliott worked in the same suite with Kristen Gregory, who retired as special assistant to the provost in 2015. The opening presented another challenge for Elliott. She applied and was hired for the position that largely oversees faculty workloads and classroom scheduling.
Elliott’s roles over the years have placed her in nearly every corner of campus — near landmarks that no longer exist, and in both buildings and offices long since re-named. She keeps reminders of her travels on campus hanging on her wall, but never loses a sense of adventure for the road ahead.
"I'm always looking for a new challenge here,” she said.
Few people are as responsible for how well your workday goes as Jason Rasmussen.
That’s because the SVSU management specialist has control over the temperatures of every room on campus, save for a few student housing suites.
The magnitude of this power isn’t lost upon the 52-year-old. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously — and with pride.
“I can tell you that the temperature in your room right now is 72 degrees,” Rasmussen, from his office in South Campus Complex A, tells this profile’s author, whose office is in Wickes Hall.
“There are some studies that say that’s the most comfortable temperature. I want people to be comfortable.”
Establishing that comfort begins when Rasmussen boots up a pair of computers that host the software that sets temperature levels for most of the campus’ individual rooms and commons areas. When the programs load, Rasmussen switches between screens showing maps of various building floorplans and offices, overlaid by a rainbow of colors designating equipment functions and heat.
With a few taps of his finger, Rasmussen turns chilled rooms hot, and dry suites humid. He performs this task in real-time or weeks in advance using a scheduling system.
There’s a sense of strategy to the work. Rasmussen determines the timing for environmental changes within spaces with people’s work schedules in mind. Classrooms are cooled to reasonable levels when students go home for the night. Gymnasiums are warmed up before a crowd is expected to arrive for a sporting event in the afternoon.
The most important determinant of Rasmussen’s work, though, are the people inhabiting the environments he controls.
“All they have to do is let me know if the room is too cold or too hot,” he says.
Not everyone is aware of the systems in place to request environmental changes in individual spaces. The deed is as easy as clicking a “Request Maintenance” tab on the university’s website. Rasmussen doesn’t mind the extra workload, he says. Minding his mantra — “I want people to be comfortable” — is what matters to him.
There are other elements of his job that keep the Grayling native busy and send him outside of his corner of campus. Equipment in need of repair is one of those duties. Recently, he absorbed foreman responsibilities from a co-worker who retired.
The work keeps him happy. He’s served at SVSU for 18 years and hopes to work there at least another decade.
“There’s not too many places where you come and enjoy work,” he says. “This is one of them.”
Next academic year, the youngest of his two daughters plans to attend the university. He’s not certain yet if she will live on campus or remain at home. Either way, Rasmussen adds, he will be the one who controls the temperature in her room.
Lisa Micsak is from a 1-traffic light town, but when it comes to her career, she’s discovered an open road without a stop sign in sight.
The Linwood native now serves as the administrative services coordinator for The Conference Center at SVSU, where she began working while still an undergraduate student in 2010.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in management in December 2013, then returned as a full-time employee in June 2014 to The Conference Center at SVSU.
While a university campus provides a busier setting than her small town beginnings did, Micsak said it was the “close-knit family atmosphere” at her office that inspired her to apply for a job there after graduation.
“The best memories I have here all involve the people,” she said. “It is inspiring how well everyone looks out for each other and takes pride in the overall community-oriented culture of the university, making it a very harmonious atmosphere.”
That level of comfort spills over into their interactions with clients. The Conference Center at SVSU works both with clientele on campus as well as outside organizations and guests interested in utilizing the campus’ facilities for various events.
One of Micsak’s favorite work experiences involved coordinating the wedding of a couple whose groom was an SVSU graduate. Micsak, though, largely worked with the bride-to-be, who lived in another state at the time.
“Our correspondence was all by email or phone leading up to the wedding,” Micsak said.
“She had to really trust my recommendations and planning abilities; that everything would look the way she wanted it to look when she got here. When we finally met on the day before the wedding, it was amazing to see the excitement and joy on her face when she saw the final result, providing her with a beautiful memory for their special day.
Micsak’s professional ambitions include furthering her career in Higher Education. She is enrolled at SVSU in classes for a master’s degree in public administration, and expects to graduate in May 2018.
“I am very passionate about furthering my career in higher education,” she said. “Long-term, I would like to work with students and look forward to being a mentor to them.
“Most of my life, friends have come to me for guidance or advice,” she said. “A lot of people need someone to listen to them and provide a caring outside perspective to help them with critical decisions they are encountering in their life.”
Micsak said her accomplishments don’t belong exclusively to her. She often is cheered on by her family, and her parents have played an important key role in her success.
“I was the first college graduate in my immediate family, so being able to attend my graduation, for them, was like attending their own graduation,” she said. “They’ve been my motivators and my role-models, without them I would not be where I am today, and for them I truly grateful.”
If you’re trying to conceal the nature of your conversation by speaking in a non-English language in front of Kate Scott, your secret might not be so safe.
The director of the English Language Program (ELP) is charged with helping international students learn English, but the extent of her handle on other languages remains a source of mystery to those on campus — and that’s the way she likes it.
“There was this one student talking to another who hadn’t bought his textbook yet,” Scott recalled. “They were going back in forth (in Arabic) about this until, finally, I told him, ‘You just need to go to the bookstore.’ They both looked at me a little surprised. ‘You know what we were saying?’”
Mostly she knew what they were saying, at least.
“I just left it at that,” she said with a smile.
Scott’s understanding of that particular language began in the Sudan, where she served as a third grade teacher shortly after graduating from SVSU as an elementary education major in 2007.
Her 3-year stint in the northeastern African nation — where they speak Arabic — helped inspire Scott to continue working in international education when she returned to the United States in 2010. That inspiration led her back to SVSU, where she began as a teacher in the ELP that same year, largely working with students from Saudi Arabia.
Scott was hired as the program’s assistant director in 2011 and became director in early 2014.
“I love my staff,” the Kalamazoo native said of the 19 people she oversees. “They’re one of the reasons why I like my job so much. They are considerate, competent and genuinely like each other.”
The team sometimes turns meetings into potlucks; other times, the group enjoys organizing outings with the program’s students. In addition to the 22 hours of intensive language instruction students receive each week, “We also want to make sure the students have an authentic experience in our community,” Scott said. For instance, her staff and students earlier this month visited Johnson’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Saginaw.
It’s not all fun and games, however. The ELP recently earned some serious stripes. In August, the program received SVSU’s first 4-year accreditation designation from The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation.
Scott is proud of the accomplishment, and the program in general, which is celebrating its 20th year on campus.
“It’s one of the best places you could work,” she said of the program.
She might be able to inform people of that fact in more languages than one — she just won’t tell you how many.
Two weeks into her 6-week obedience class, Brook the chocolate lab puppy still doesn’t respond positively to Pamela Wegener’s commands to stay inside the house. The result sometimes leads Wegener on foot chases across her family’s 15-acre Midland County property, in pursuit of the 5-month-old dog.
“We haven’t gotten to the point where, ‘Come back,’ works,” Wegener said. “We’ll get there.”
Wegener’s faith in the power of “come back” extends to her work at SVSU, where she serves as associate director of Alumni Relations.
The office aims to keep graduates engaged with their alma mater long after graduation in part by reminding them of why they enjoyed SVSU as students. Wegener can testify to SVSU’s institutional magnetism. It’s what brought her back to the campus after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration there in 1992.
After spending the next 13 years in jobs at Dow Chemical Co., Delphi Corp. and the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, she was recruited to return to her alma mater in 2005 by Gene Hamilton, who retired recently as SVSU’s director of external affairs. He was impressed with Wegener’s Chamber of Commerce work developing programs that engaged businesses with local schools.
“Being that I loved SVSU, I was really passionate about coming back,” Wegener said.
She began as an assistant director of Alumni Relations, where she helped develop the first issues of Reflections magazine, organized alumni events and maintained records. Wegener remained in that role until 2010, when she was hired as special project coordinator for administration and business affairs.
Shortly after Don Bachand was installed as president in 2013, he placed a new emphasis on Alumni Relations. The reorganization that followed included Wegener’s return to the office, along with a slew of new programs aimed at more actively engaging graduates.
Some of her responsibilities today include overseeing communications through Alumni Relations’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts as well as the university’s new social media tool, SVSU Connect.
One of her favorite roles involves interacting with graduating seniors as part of the new 63 Days To Graduation program. The initiative allows her to speak 1-on-1 with students in their final weeks as undergraduates.
“It’s inspiring,” she said. “I love to hear about their experiences and how they plan to use their degrees after graduation.”
Although the program is less than a year old, those initial interactions already have resulted in continuing relationships with the students-turned-alumni. The increasing traffic in her Wickes Hall office offered proof recent graduates are obliging her invitation to “come back home,” Wegener said.
It’s the sort of response she soon hopes to receive from Brook the chocolate lab puppy.
Every smile has a purpose for Heidi Chernich.
After her 16-year-old son, VJ, ended his life in September 2008, Chernich’s approach to connecting with people has changed. It’s an approach that she brings to her work as administrative secretary at the Office of Academic Affairs.
“The way you treat people and the way you smile at someone can make a difference,” she said. “Sometimes just saying ‘hi’ can make that difference, especially if someone seems sad.”
Chernich’s own struggles with despair following her son’s death led her to step away from a 25-year career as a legal assistant with the UAW. She spent four years in that state of mind before deciding to re-enter the work force by answering an advertisement seeking candidates for SVSU’s clerical pool.
She was hired, spending weeks at a time in various offices before landing a full-time position in the Office of Diversity Programs. She was hired at Academic Affairs in April 2015.
The move to SVSU helped Chernich reengage with the world, exposing her to supportive and friendly co-workers. The network she built on campus also was supportive of Chernich when she joined Walk For Hope, a Saginaw-based nonprofit organization that raises awareness about depression and suicide. A number of Chernich’s colleagues have joined in her efforts with the group.
“It’s a passion of mine,” she said of Walk For Hope’s mission. “Very close to my heart.”
The nonprofit hosts an annual fundraiser that supports educational programs aimed at training people how to approach those suffering from depression and thoughts of suicide.
“My son was the most normal 16-year-old, and I didn’t even realize he was suffering from depression,” she said. “Talking about these sort of things can be difficult, and I just want to make it easier for people to talk about these things.”
The lessons she has learned, meanwhile, have made her daily interactions more rich and meaningful, she said.
“I try to get to know everyone, including the student workers,” Chernich said.
She considers her Academic Affair co-workers “like a family.”
“They’re just a great group of people to work with,” she said.
Meanwhile, her at-home family also keeps Chernich smiling. With her husband of 30 years, Vince, Chernich raised five children, including two who still live at home. Chernich said a new addition to that family tree — a 4-year-old grandson — has given her another purpose for smiling.
“He and I share a really special bond,” Chernich said. “We had a connection right from the beginning, and he makes everything worthwhile. He makes me smile every time.”
Once — not too long ago — Dan Strasz tried to count the number of offices he has occupied while working at SVSU.
“I lost count at 17,” said the Academic Advisement Center director. “I’ve been all over the campus.”
The office he has occupied for nearly two years, on the first floor of Wickes Hall, was a library when Strasz first became part of the SVSU family as a teenage undergraduate in 1982.
Since then, he has worn a number of hats on campus, as both a student and a professional.
He was a player on the 1983 national championship men’s indoor track team — an accomplishment that in 2013 resulted in the team’s induction into the SVSU Cardinal Athletics Hall of Fame. He served as the student government’s president in 1985. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1986.
Shortly after that, he nearly nabbed a position in the state government, but an election season fallout kept him from such a career. Instead, he applied for a position in the SVSU Admissions office. Since then, he’s taken on new roles in Career Services, First Year Programs, Orientation, and Academic Advisement.
“It’s gone by really quick,” Strasz said of his career as a Cardinal. “It’s been a great experience here. I’ve been fortunate to have had a variety of job opportunities.”
Strasz membership to the SVSU family runs as deep as DNA. His daughter, Sarah, expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology within two years. His son, Bill, already earned a bachelor’s degree in health science and is engaged to another member of SVSU’s alumni.
His wife, Tracy, who also graduated from SVSU, died of cancer in 2009. Since then, Strasz has been a regular at charities and fundraisers benefiting cancer research and cancer awareness.
“That’s a very important cause to me, so I try to stay connected to events like that,” he said.
He also keeps busy as a coach with the 7th and 8th grade football team at Nouvel Catholic Central Elementary School.
“I’m very committed to the learning process,” Strasz said.
That commitment remains part of the reason he advanced his career at SVSU.
Strasz has remained a member of the Academic Advisement Center since 1998, his longest tenure with any of SVSU’s offices.
“What I enjoy most about this job are the challenges,” he said. “Whether it’s making processes easier, helping students who are registering, improving university processes, anytime I get an opportunity to make things better, that’s rewarding for me.”
He said his colleagues motivate him and bolster him professionally.
“It’s gone by really quick,” Strasz said of his career as a Cardinal. “I’m fortunate to have a very dedicated and hard-working staff. It’s been a great experience here.”
By Bruce Zimmerman’s calculation, SVSU extended his coaching career by a decade.
“Sixty years old,” he said. “That’s when I told my wife I would be ready to retire. Then I heard about this opportunity.”
“This opportunity” was a chance for the now-62-year-old to become the first coach of both SVSU’s inaugural women’s swimming and diving team in 2014 and first men’s swimming and diving team in 2015.
“It seemed like all of the pieces of the puzzle were here to create something special,” said Zimmerman, whose new target retirement age is 70.
Even while he was an active competitor, though, Zimmerman’s ambitions were to become a coach one day.
“I was very heavily influenced by my elementary school physical education teacher,” Zimmerman said. “By the time I graduated from elementary school, I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Zimmerman can mark the beginning of his coaching career to the day: Nov. 7, 1975.
“That was a scary date,” he said. “I remember walking out to the pool deck. I started to go through the new team policies, and one of the older guys didn’t like what he was hearing, so he left.”
He began by coaching both the boys team in Peoria High School and the Peoria Park District USS Age Group Swim Team in Illinois. His career included jobs at various K-12 schools, clubs and colleges across the Midwest and east coast.
His first college coaching stint came in 1988 with a women’s team affiliated with the University of South Carolina. When the men’s team’s coach departed for the storied men’s swimming program at Indiana University — which produced Olympic champions such as Mark Spitz — Zimmerman followed to become an assistant coach in 1990. In 1999, he accepted a head coach position at the College of Charleston, where he remained until he decided to postpone his retirement and join SVSU.
“Our teams have exceeded my expectations substantially,” he said of SVSU’s programs. For instance, four student-athletes from SVSU’s women’s team qualified for the NCAA Championships during the program’s first two years. Two student-athletes from the men’s team qualified for the championships during the program’s first and only year of competition.
Zimmerman relishes the opportunity to impact players’ lives inside and outside of the pool.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than when a former swimmer calls me up to tell me how something I taught them paid off in life,” he said. “That’s what keeps me motivated.”