Story by Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography by Kacy Meinecke
Some have called James “Jim” Rhatigan the heart of Wichita State University. But for Rhatigan, it’s the students who are the heart of any university.
He came to WSU more than 50 years ago to accept an opportunity to start a model of what a modern student affairs office should look like. At age 30 in 1965, he was the nation’s youngest dean of students, not all that far removed from having been a college student himself. After starting as a private college and then a municipal, city-owned university,
WSU had just become a part of Kansas’ public university system. In 1997, his name became a permanent fixture at WSU, when the university renamed its student center in his honor.
For Rhatigan, both his career and his personal life have come down to one simple thing: caring.
Born and raised in a small Iowa town and earning his bachelor’s degree at a small liberal arts college in his home state, Rhatigan had the compassion and innate ability to connect with students, to be their champion.
It was old school values – things like respect, civility, finding common ground, thankfulness and an appreciation for each person’s contributions – that led Rhatigan to become not only the much-respected dean of students at Wichita State but the don of the student affairs field nationally.
Four years ago, at age 78, he wrote his last professional article on the topic of student affairs. Fittingly, the title of the article was “The Enduring Value of an Ethic of Caring.”
He had chances to go elsewhere, he said. He stayed because “I was given the ability to help students as I saw fit.” Sometimes that meant creating programs like innovative group counseling; sometimes it meant encouraging and meeting with students one-on-one.
He still has an office on the WSU campus but no real official role, other than still being a champion for WSU and higher education.
“I can state without fear of rebuttal that I stayed here because I wanted to,” he said, listing the schools that tried to recruit him away: Johns Hopkins University, Florida State, Iowa State and more.
He retired from student affairs in 1997 and spent the next five years advising WSU presidents Eugene Hughes and Don Beggs as a senior vice president. From 2002 to 2013, he was a consultant for the WSU Foundation, helping raise millions of dollars.
He and his wife, Beverly, whom he calls his greatest asset, are still common fixtures at WSU events.
“The most important thing I did in my career was marry Beverly nearly 55 years ago in the Danforth Chapel at the University of Iowa. I read her all my papers. She did all the worrying for me and she looked after me.” The couple has a daughter, Becky. She and her husband have two children.
He still writes notes to students he hears about or comes in contact with to encourage them in their endeavors.
Rhatigan got his first taste of dealing with students when he took a job as a resident hall adviser to help pay his way through graduate school at Syracuse University, where he was studying American history. He went on to earn his doctorate in university personnel administration at the University of Iowa and then joined WSU shortly afterward.
The issues that rallied students into action back in the 1960s are some of the same issues students still grapple with today, Rhatigan noted: race, equality, politics, gender, marginalized groups and more. Grievances should be heard, relationships need to be built, an ethic of caring has to endure, he said. That’s how he helped keep the calm on campus back then.
During his career, he racked up awards from his peers who affirmed he had something special when it came to working with students. In 1981, he received the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ highest award for service to the profession, and a few years later he received NASPA’s Scott Goodnight Award for outstanding student affairs administrator.
Rhatigan has always been an ambassador for students, an ambassador for WSU and an advocate of getting an education.
“There’s no prescription for education beyond high school that a person should follow. It can be a trade, an apprenticeship, a community college or a small liberal arts college,” he said. “That’s the beauty of American higher education. There are options.”