Please remember in your prayers former St. Thomas dean of students William (Bill) Malevich. He died at a hospice in Green Valley, Arizona, on Tuesday evening, July 14, of complications related to a fall last winter. He was 82.
Malevich first came to work at St. Thomas in 1965 and worked both in admissions and student counseling. In 1966 he was appointed director of student counseling and in 1967 became the first layperson to hold the dean of students post at St. Thomas. He was dean for 26 years and retired in 1993. The William B. Malevich Award, initiated in 1989, recognizes outstanding contributions to the St. Thomas community by an administrator or staff member. Also named for him is the William B. Malevich Student Leadership Scholarship.
Malevich and his wife, Penny, were married for 53 years. In recent years they have spent winters in Arizona and summers in St. Paul. In addition to Penny, Malevich is survived by a son, Steven, of West St. Paul. The family is planning a memorial service but the date and location have not yet been determined.
Malevich grew up in Eveleth on Minnesota’s Iron Range. He received two St. Thomas degrees, a bachelor’s in political science in 1955 and a master’s in guidance and counseling in 1963.
In a news release announcing his appointment as dean of students, then-president Monsignor Terrence Murphy predicted that “Mr. Malevich because of his experience in teaching and counseling young people will bring a wealth of practical experience to the job and will relate well to the St. Thomas students.”
In terms of volume and entertainment value, Malevich left behind a written legacy unmatched in university history. Oddly, it began with a campus “Gong Show” sponsored by a St. Thomas fraternity in the early 1980s. Malevich was asked to perform as “Dean, Dean the Dancing Machine.”
“We were really growing in size about that time and I was afraid I was losing touch with the students,” Malevich said in a 1994 St. Thomas magazine story. “I was looking for ways to reach out and let students know that someone was willing to hear and help them. So I started the booth in Murray Hall and called it ‘Dean, Dean the Answer Machine.’”
His “Ask the Dean” column, a written version of the answer booth, began in the Weekly Student Bulletin (aka “the Yellow Sheet”) in 1983 and continued in the newspaper version, the Weekly Bulletin. Over the course of the next decade, Malevich responded to 2,233 questions.
As pointed out in the St. Thomas magazine story, the column “was intended to be a mostly serious forum for students to freely voice concerns. But as readers of the column know, ‘Ask the Dean’ opened the door to creativity, humor and just about every emotion experienced by college students. If the column served one purpose, it let everyone know what was on students’ minds.”
You can read the 1994 magazine article, in its entirety, here.
Father John Malone, retired St. Thomas business professor and vice president for mission, said Malevich “believed in the theory that the dean of students didn’t operate out of his office. He operated out of The Grill. The guy almost lived in The Grill. It was a very personal approach. He would sit down with strangers, introduce himself and listen to their stories.
“Bill was a kid from the Iron Range who came to St. Thomas and was scared to death when he got here,” Malone said. “He wasn’t going to let that happen to students when he was dean.
“He was a substitute grandpa to a lot of people on campus,” Malone added.
The late Richard Conklin, in his book 125 Years: A Look at Interesting and Influential People in the History of St. Thomas, wrote about Malevich: “His sympathetic attitude toward troubled students was born of his own wayward ways at St. Thomas in the 1950s (‘I partied more than I studied’), as well as a counseling background that leaned toward rehabilitation rather than expulsion or suspension.
“Over the years, students wrote him about serious issues – alcoholism and abortion – as well as about the absence of onion rings in the cafeteria and the difficulties of the subjunctive tense in German,” Conklin wrote. “His answers mixed wisdom and wit. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ one student asked. His reply: ‘If I really gave you the answer to that question, wouldn’t it take the fun out of discovering the answer for yourself?’”
He didn’t duck all the hard questions, however. When two students, who called themselves the Duo of Deranged Dowling Dames, wanted to know the number of snowflakes in a pile out by the ball field, Malevich told them it was 42,821,446,348. On the other hand, when asked about the cubic volume of atoms required to cover the surface of the average-size chicken, “Dean Dean the Answer Machine” claimed his calculator blew up trying to figure it out.
Bill Collins, a 1987 St. Thomas graduate who knew Malevich well, said “The Ask Dean the Column made him an on-campus celebrity. The first thing that everyone did when they got the Bulletin was to read the column. He never came across as aloof or out of touch. He had a great sense of humor in the column but he always used it to deliver good and important messages.”
Collins joked that he was identified as a “potential problem student from Day 1,” and that Malevich told him, “Let’s put your energy to work for good, not evil.” Collins was involved in the All College Council for four years, serving as president his senior year.
Today Collins is managing director of Actors Theater of Minnesota in St. Paul and also is opening Chicago Theater Works, which will premier Collins’ hit play, “We Gotta Bingo,” next week.
“Bill spent most of his career at St. Thomas,” Collins said, “and he was young enough when he came in that he was approachable for students. He always maintained that approachability, and he intuitively knew what students were going through. He was one of those people lucky enough to find the job that suited him, and then spent his lifetime doing it well.”
Collins said the last time he saw Malevich was 18 months ago. “I went to shake his hand. He pushed it aside and gave me a big hug.”
“Bill was a great boss,” recalled Josie Driscoll, a retired administrative assistant who worked in the Dean of Students Office from 1978 to the mid-1990s. “The students loved him, so our office was the hubbub of activity all the time, and he always supported his staff. One year, when we did our evaluations, everybody who reported to him got the highest marks. Somebody from Human Resources came over and said, ‘All your staff can’t possibly be 4s. You have to re-do this.’ He was beside himself. He said, ‘This is exactly how I feel about my staff and its performance in the past year.’
“He really liked the students, and it showed,” Driscoll said. “He was very fair with students. He would put up with a lot of stuff, but they also knew they had to toe the line. They knew they could come to him for anything and were always welcome in his office, and he would make time for them.”
Driscoll’s comments were echoed by Al Sickbert, dean of students at Hamline University since 2004. Sickbert served under Malevich from 1986 to 1993, and succeeded him as the St. Thomas dean of students from 1994 to 2002.
“Bill was one of the last old-fashioned deans – someone whose whole focus was to be a dean who talked to students,” Sickbert said. “He wasn’t that interested in policies and going to meetings. He created with every student who ever got in trouble a very personal relationship. He invited students in and got to know them as real people – not just as students. It was all about personal touch.”
What did Sickbert learn from his former boss? “If you want to be a dean of students, the students have to be your priority.”
Greg Cash, a St. Thomas student who graduated in 1979, described Malevich as “a great relationship guy. He would build relationships with everybody. He was so unassuming and would say, ‘Don’t call me Dean.’ On the one hand, he was a friend, but you also knew that if you crossed the line he would call you on it. He treated students with respect, but when he had to lay down the law, he did.”
“I was called into his office during my freshman year, after a couple of incidents, and he said, ‘Well, Greg, it’s been quite a first semester for you!’ We had a good talk about it. Between Bill and Monsignor Lavin, they got me on the straight and narrow.”
Cash, who in his senior year lived in the house at 2057 Portland (now owned by St. Thomas), recalled that “We had a gin-and-tonic party at the Portland house in the fall of 1978, and hundreds of our closest friends showed up. It was the night before Parents Weekend, and as parents came to campus they’d look across Cleveland and see a lot of red cups on the lawn. The movie ‘Animal House’ had come out that summer, and we got a letter from Bill after the party, telling us he was putting us on ‘double secret probation.’ We had to mind our Ps and Qs the rest of the year.”
At the end of his career at St. Thomas, Malevich said he was never able to adequately articulate what the dean of students does. “The position is often defined around student discipline, and that’s the hardest part of the job,” he said in the 1994 magazine article. He listed several prerequisites for the position: “You have to be bright, personable, a great problem-solver and come from the Iron Range. Well, at least I have one of those.”