Morning Sun
  • Joan Cleland retiring after 33 years at PSU


    Joan Cleland served three presidents at Pittsburg State as administrative assistant to the president. 

    "She made all three of us look better than we were," quipped Tom Bryant, the second of those PSU presidents. "...Nobody loved the university or was more loyal to the university than Joan in her career. She'll always be loyal to Pittsburg State, I'll tell you that."

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  •   Joan Cleland served three presidents at Pittsburg State as administrative assistant to the president.  "She made all three of us look better than we were," quipped Tom Bryant, the second of those PSU presidents. "...Nobody loved the university or was more loyal to the university than Joan in her career. She'll always be loyal to Pittsburg State, I'll tell you that." Cleland is retiring after 33 years at Pittsburg State, including 17 as assistant to the president. Current PSU President Steve Scott knows how vital Cleland has been to the university, even beyond how she's helped out the office of the president.  "It's one of those things you don't teach and you can't coach," Scott said. "It's a sense of mission, purpose and commitment. She's got that, and she's so invested in Pittsburg State. She wants the institution to do well. It's either something you have or you don't, and she's got it."
      Early days Cleland started at Pittsburg State in the mid 1960s. Pittsburg State records show that she started as a student employee in 1967 in the financial aid department. However, Cleland knows better than to trust those records. She remembers starting in 1966. "Trust me, when you work in financial aid, you learn a lot about the university quickly. You learn how important finances are to families to get an education," Cleland said. "You learn quickly how to be a people person to help navigate the ins and outs of financial aid. I learned a lot, and I worked there for four years." During those years, Cleland was also earning a business degree from the university. 
    After that, well, family and life got in the way. The then-Joan Kovacic married Ken Cleland, and went with him as he participated in a five-year Army stint, including three years in Germany.  "He came back and got a job at USD 246. I did part-time things until 1977 because I had an infant when we moved back," she said. "I knew Kathryn Richard (still with Pittsburg State herself) needed someone to work for her on maternity leave. That was a temporary job I worked in 1977." Cleland was in a good position for the expanding Kelce School of Business, serving in a half-time job that eventually became full-time.  Over the years (and a small break from the position), Cleland served as secretary for the business administration department and eventually secretary to the dean of the College of Business. 
    During this time, she pursued and earned an MBA from the school, becoming one of the advisors at the school, too. At a reception in Cleland's honor last week, two current Pittsburg State employees told Cleland that she'd been their advisor as they went through the department. "I taught half of the time and I did that half of the time," she said. By 1996, she was working in the human resources department in Russ Hall annex when John Darling's assistant to the president, Kaye Lynne Webb, retired. Darling chose Cleland. "It was intimidating at first," she said. "There are so many things that take place in the president's office. You know that what you do can affect the entire university. It's very intimidating to start a job like that, to know that you can affect others.
    Page 2 of 3 -   Assistant to the President Pittsburg State university marketing officials are working on their own story about Cleland. 
    One would think that over 17 years of being in the same position, that there would be plenty of pictures of Cleland. But instead, archives showed few pictures of her. Instead, she's always been in the background, making sure others took the stage.  But the presidents she's worked with know the major events she has been a part of making a reality. "She and Tommy Riggs really made the Fall Classic what it is. It's been tremendously successful for a lot of years," Bryant said.  "She was wholly involved in Apple Day and commencement. When the regents came to town, she handled all that. She did all the invitations for the skybox in football and all the entertaining we do," Scott said.  There's more: She was involved in the stadium expansion, the university's 100th birthday celebration, the starts of Gorilla Fest and the planning of many projects around campus, like the Kansas Polymer Research Center, the Student Recreation Center, the Bryant Student Health Center and more. Many of those events, she's turned over to others as a learning experience along the way. But while she was a part of those things on a large scale, there were also the small-scale moments that few will ever know.  "Just a few weeks ago, I had to see a donor, and I couldn't think of his wife's name," Scott said. "I couldn't think of her name at all, so I pulled over at a gas station to send her an email. While I was checking my email, I saw an email from her, saying, 'I forgot to tell you when you left this morning, but his wife's name is ...' I didn't even have to ask, and she'd already taken care of it." There are even more things that few may know about Cleland's position in the office. "I open up and close the office every day. I've just taken on that role," she said. "I'm not necessarily the first one here -- Dr. Scott is sometimes. But I open up the  office to the public. We're ready when the first person walks through the door, straight until we're done. "You just figure out what you need to do to make the place work. If it's to make a cup of coffee, move tables and chairs, haul tables or chairs, run to Walmart for refreshments... You just do it. There's nothing in the office that I've asked students to do that I haven't done myself."   Family and Future Cleland will spend her last day in the role on Friday. But she's not done with Pittsburg State. She'll be seen in the stands of Pittsburg State football, basketball, volleyball, and of course, baseball. Two of her sons played baseball at Pittsburg State.  "Ken and I've been to more Pittsburg State baseball than anyone but Steve Bever," Cleland said. "We've been to a lot of baseball games. We like baseball." She's got more baseball games to attend, with grandsons Cooper and Brett (11 and 10, respectively) getting close to playing middle school baseball. Someday down the road, her other grandson, Caden, 2, may also take the diamond. While she's been the assistant to the president for 17 years, some of that attention may be turned toward her husband, Ken. "His honey-do list is just getting started," she said. In addition to her family, she'll spend a lot of time in and around Arma.  "We are very proud of our heritage. We are very proud of where we're from. We're all very involved with lots of people and events. We like people, we like to do things. We like to see things get done," Cleland said. Taking over for Cleland will be Jaime Vanderbeck, who has been the assistant director for graduate and continuing services at PSU. "She'll do fine. What I like about her is that she has worked at Pittsburg State and she knows a lot of people," Cleland said. "She has lots of connections at different departments. Personal relationships make a big deal in this position." That's what Cleland will be remembered for, if you ask the PSU presidents she worked alongside. There's a lot of love and Pittsburg State passion that she's brought to the role. "When it's all said and done, she loved Pittsburg State University," Bryant said. "She always looked out for the students. She always looked out for the faculty/staff. She always had their back. In things like that, I can say she was basically instrumental in making Pittsburg State a great place to work and live."
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    Andrew Nash can be reached at anash@morningsun.net or by calling 231-2600 ext. 139.
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