Since he was installed as president in 1987, enrollment has risen by 70 percent, and more than a dozen sparkling new or updated facilities house students, books and classrooms, or are the center of spiritual and recreational activities.
But President Ed Rogalski will tell you that's not the real story. The real story is about the people, not the numbers. The real story is about the family that makes up St. Ambrose.
The head of the family-a moniker he modestly rejects-is Rogalski himself. Although he asserts that a university is "not the length and shadow of its president," Rogalski's philosophies of leadership, humility and inclusiveness are key to understanding how the university has grown under his guidance. Those philosophies began to develop early in life.
Born Feb. 16, 1942, to Polish immigrants in Manville, N.J., Ed Rogalski was the youngest of eight children. "I had a lot of loving care as a child," he says. "When I brought my report card home, nine people examined it-in English and in Polish. They taught me leadership and ‘follower-ship' every night at the dining table. They taught me humility and compassion. And they infused me with a strong work ethic."
Indeed, by the time young Ed was 12, he had already held several jobs, including picking vegetables on nearby farms, and running the concession stand, taking tickets and ushering at the neighborhood movie theater. The money all went into the house kitty.
"Dad was a good provider, working in a blue-collar job," Rogalski says. "But ten mouths are a lot to feed. We all contributed."
Rogalski continued to work through high school, as well, at the post office and as a fabric cutter for the garment industry. But he also was learning something about himself: He loved education and wanted to continue his studies. When he left for Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 1960, he embarked on a path no one else in his family had trod.
"I was the only member of my family to graduate from college," Rogalski says. "My parents and siblings were proud of me, and gave me their blessing. They said, ‘You carry the banner for us.'"
In 1963, though, the banner was laid aside as the college man returned home to pitch in with family responsibilities. "I got a job in a stone quarry," he remembers. "I cut stone, ran the kilns and loaded and unloaded supplies. It was good, hard work."
In the evenings, though, the young man continued to study, taking classes at Rutgers University. Then Rogalski's high school mentor paid him a visit. "Ray Smith had been my principal and had taken an interest in me," he says. "Ray encouraged me to return to college and arranged for me to receive a full scholarship at Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa."
He would graduate from Parsons in 1965 but stay on as dean of men. That experience-like the experience of those childhood dinners in New Jersey-would have lasting implications for Rogalski's professional philosophy. Parsons College was becoming controversial. It had grown dramatically over a very short time, shelling out some of the highest professorial salaries nationwide. The Parsons promise was to take students who had not been successful elsewhere and give them a second chance. The Parsons reality wasn't, as it turned out, economically sound.
"You can learn as much from a bad example as you can from a good example," Rogalski says. "On the positive side, Parsons' concept of a second chance was good. Higher education has adopted that model to a certain extent, by providing academic support to students who needed extra help to succeed. On the other hand, Parsons was not allowed to grow organically, and it collapsed. The administration didn't promote healthy governance. It didn't solicit input from the faculty, staff and officers. The administration didn't listen, and it ultimately failed."
Now a young adult, Ed spent the next few years working at Parsons while pursuing his master's degree in student personnel administration from the University of Iowa, and courting his wife-to-be, Bobbi Bogk. The story of their courtship varies, depending upon the storyteller. Bobbi Rogalski remembers a straight-laced, blazer-and-button-down-clad young man with a penchant for saying good morning to everyone he met, no matter how hippy-ish they looked (it was 1966). He remembers a cute girl who kept setting her detectives on him. (One blurted out, "Are you Catholic?" before reporting back to Bobbi.) The one thing they agree on is a turning point in their romance involving a borrowed car with a stick shift.
"It was the day after our first date," Bobbi remembers, right before Christmas break. "Coincidentally, the car I was driving behind turned out to be his. I let out the clutch and accidentally rolled-very gently-into him. I was horrified. This man-I had no idea who he was-stormed out of his car and over to me. I stared straight ahead, waiting for him to yell at me. He ducked his head through my window, kissed me, said ‘Merry Christmas,' and drove away."
Not quite, counters the president. "Bobbi knew who was in front of her," he chuckles. "She did it on purpose." Happy coincidence or brilliant plan, their marriage has been almost exactly as long-lived as their service to St. Ambrose. And ask anyone: They are a team.
"Ed and Bobbi exemplify what it means to be committed to higher education in general and St. Ambrose University in particular," says John Hartung, president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "They came to St. Ambrose and stayed. They weren't looking to go somewhere else, which isn't very common anymore. People don't dedicate their entire professional lives to one university and one community. But Ed and Bobbi have."
Their list of activities and commitments would fill a page. They both serve on numerous community boards, and Ed will assume the chairmanship of both the 2008 United Way campaign and Genesis Health System board of directors after he retires from SAU. But the Rogalskis' highest priority for many years was their children.
"Dad was always playing with us," JJ Rogalski says. "I remember many long summer evenings playing baseball on campus. Dad taught me to bat left-handed, so I could be a switch-hitter, like he was. We lived in a little house where Lee Lohman now stands. The campus was our playground, and the university was the eighth member of our family."
Putting the boys-they have five-to bed at night, Ed would nestle among them on the floor and sing. He says his singing has become a family joke that "some take better than others."
"I like a little peace and quiet when I wake up in the morning," Bobbi laughs. "Ed wakes up singing. It's irritating!"
David Rogalski '02, the fourth of their sons, remembers the car rides to school every morning. "Every day, Dad would leave my younger brother Chris and me with advice. He'd say, ‘Be kind and be gentle.' Then we'd get a hug and be on our way."
Ed Rogalski's hugs are legendary, both on campus and off. They are his way of spreading a little kindness and gentleness. "What you see is what you get with Ed," Bobbi says. "He really is who he seems to be."
That's the key, Bobbi says, to understanding his character. "Ed's most important characteristic is his sense of commitment," she says. "If he says he's going to do something, he will do it. It's the key to his personality.
"Ed is a man of faith," she continues. "He always says, ‘Have faith in yourself, in others, and in a higher authority.' He was brought up in an envir onment where you're true to yourself and to others. You treat others as you wish to be treated."
Friends and associates underscore that sentiment. "I've known Ed for 35 years," says SAU board member Weir Sears '51, '80 (h). "He is a marvelous gentleman. He is anxious to do anything he can for anyone." Just so, adds St. Ambrose's vice president of finance, Ed Henkhaus '64. "Ed is a gentle giant," he says. "He's the type of guy who listens well to what people have to say. He really respects others. He has a way of placing himself in their position. All of the attributes that make up who he is-caring, concern, understanding, empathy-have made him a wonderful friend, and a wonderful president of this institution."
Ask Ed Rogalski who he really is, and he'll try to deflect the question. He's not comfortable talking about himself and would rather discuss the students, faculty and staff of St. Ambrose. As he does so, though, he reveals himself: You hear the humility learned at the family dinner table, the plans for healthy governance gleaned from Parsons College, and the compassion stoked by Bobbi and their children.
"I am proudest of the steps we took to move this campus toward more inclusiveness," he says. "Faculty, staff and students all take part in decision-making here, which is unusual in many other institutions. Listening to others is key to healthy governance. I remember a visit from Grinnell College's president, who was amazed by the concept of our Presidential Assembly. He said you would never find a custodian sitting next to a professor in any kind of meeting there.
"Everyone has a voice here. I have tried to instill the concept and value of family here, which underscores the compassion of the institution. I always challenge our people to ‘out-care the competition.' It's what makes us different from other institutions.
"I was raised to understand that I'm no better than anyone else. I was just given an opportunity that many don't have. I am so grateful for it. It has been my privilege to love and help lead the best institution of its kind."
Ed Rogalski wipes his eyes. He's been tearing up a lot lately as he attends the myriad going-away receptions and parties planned in his and Bobbi's honor. Not that they really are going away. They plan to continue to live in their nearby family home on Rusholme Street for a long time to come. As Bobbi says, "The community is stuck with us."
And we–the Rogalskis' extended family–are grateful for that.