For 16 years, Dave Wolk has been the face of Castleton University. In that time, according to Wolk, $80 million was invested into the campus – and he stressed students were involved every step of the way.
“Everything that I’ve done here has been with this lens: would I want this for my own kids?” Wolk said in a reflective interview days before his Dec. 2 retirement.
In that time, Wolk’s personal life changed, too.
His wife, Diane, passed away in 2015 from Alzheimer’s.
Last year, his father passed away.
And as you read this, Wolk and his wife, Lyn, will be moving to Florida to help take care of his mother – who, at 91, is battling the same disease that claimed Diane.
A sign from dad
If you ask Wolk, his father bled 343 green – the official color of Castleton University.
“He was a huge Spartan fan,” he said. “He wore 343 green proudly. He had stickers, he had buttons. He would go to games, he would come to Harry’s theatrical productions. He loved it here, and I loved having him here.”
Wolk’s father passed away on Nov. 17, 2016, at the age of 97. It was a turning point in his life. His father was his best friend. They were joined at the hip, he said, and his father is now right on his shoulder.
“My dad and I had talked in the nursing home,” Wolk said. “I had spent all night with him, you know, and we talked about what’s next, and it was pretty much during that time I had decided that 16 years was enough, here.”
He said he had pretty much made up his mind before his father’s passing that he was going to retire – but it solidified the decision for him.
“I don’t want to be the guy who stayed too long,” Wolk said. “I’m kind of a dinosaur when it comes to a lot of things. I just didn’t want to be the guy who people say ‘Oh my god, is he still there?’”
A prominent plaque on the wall in Wolk’s office is a gift from the Student Government Association and senior class from 2011. It says “10 Years in 2011. A Decade of Success at Castleton State College.”
Included on it are various photographs – and some of his wife, Diane.
She was a teacher, school principal, chair of the State Board of Education, and even a director of student teaching at Castleton. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 –
and it would claim her life eight years later.
“She was a sweetheart,” he said. “Very courageous.”
In 2008, Wolk and his wife joined 400 family member and friends at the 2008 Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk in Rutland, according to a 2015 article from VT Digger.
Their t-shirts, all matching, had three simple words on them: “Walk with Wolk.” This was his favorite moment with her, Wolk said.
“We raised $31,000 in one day for Alzheimer’s research,” Wolk said. “She got up – it was at the beginning of her diagnosis, she knew she had Alzheimer’s, she knew she had a death sentence, but she was an amazing educator for 34 years, and she wanted to turn her death sentence into a teachable moment.”
She stood up in the gazebo in Depot Park, he said, and she talked about how they would find a cure for Alzheimer’s. At the end of that short speech, which she rehearsed with Wolk beforehand, she said something that Wolk vividly remembers 10 years later.
“She said, ‘I feel like that guy, Lou Gehrig, I feel like the luckiest person in the world,’” he said.
Wolk’s current wife, Lyn Huntoon Wolk, knew Diane. They were friends with each other.
“I was witness to Diane in those early years,” she said. “I could see the process in how hard they were working to find a cure, and to find some sort of treatment for her. I knew early on everything they were going through, and I think to resolve yourself that there is no solution to that is really difficult.”
But he wasn’t without support, she said. That support came in the form of Diane’s children, her siblings – and the extended family at Castleton.
“The students who knew Diane, the faculty, and the staff, all went through that journey with Dave,” she said. “This is his family, so he had that support and felt that love, and warm embrace of a loving family around him.”
According to Lyn, that embrace is what helped pull Wolk through.
Wolk served in the Vermont Senate from 1989 to 1992. During that tenure came what he considers to be his greatest achievement.
“When I was in the senate, I sponsored a bill that became law,” Wolk said. “And I helped to shepherd it through, and it was one of my more difficult challenges in my life.”
That bill, called the ‘gay rights bill’ by the news, according to Wolk, was about making sure that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, would not be discriminated against.
Wolk’s support of this bill drew death threats.
“I had state police protection with me all the time,” Wolk said. “Back in ’89 to ’90, state police parked their cruiser at my house. They were with me all the time, because I had very specific death threats from people who were homophobic.”
When that bill passed, 10 plain-clothed state troopers stood by as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean signed the bill.
“The hate-crime bill and the anti-discrimination bill, as I look back, are among the toughest challenges.” Wolk said.
‘Private Candor, Public Support.’
Just outside of Wolk’s office hangs a framed quote by Leonardo da Vinci. The quote reads “Reprove your friend in secret and praise him openly.” Wolk said he tries to live by those words.
“There’s a reason it’s here,” he said, taking a moment to hang it back up in its place. “The reason is that in life, and in the work world, people have differences. There’s always conflict and compromise, but you never get anywhere in this world by public denigration of other people.”
To his recollection, Wolk has never called out someone publicly – saving his critiques for private.
“You need to have that private candor,” Wolk said. “But you also need to be publicly supportive of people. Say you’re in a big group, and there are employees, and you’re the supervisor. Why in the world would you embarrass somebody in a public setting? Because everybody else in the room is going to wonder when it’s going to be their turn to be embarrassed.”
And as passionate as he is about that motto, he gets more excited talking about the concept of ‘the Castleton way.’ To Wolk, that means that you do the right thing without somebody looking. And it’s a concept that Wolk lives by, and loves when he hears that students and faculty are doing the same.
“You do the right thing when no one else is watching, whether it’s holding the door for someone, picking up litter, being a part of the loving warm embrace of a family,” Wolk said. “The Castleton way is all about thinking outside yourself, and knowing that no one ever gets anywhere without knowing that it’s your family or your community that moves things forward.”
Among the various wall hangings into his office, a large, framed piece of art from the 2009 inaugural football season states in bold letters, “TEAMWORK.” For Deanna Tyson, associate dean for athletics and recreation, Wolk’s vision grew Castleton’s athletics beyond any expectation, including athletic programs, new athletic facilities, Spartan Arena in Rutland, and the Spartan Stadium – which is being renamed the ‘Dave Wolk Stadium.’
“He truly changed the landscape of Castleton’s athletic program,” she said. “By growing to 28 sport programs, he has given the opportunity to over 600 student-athletes a year to compete as a Spartan.
Students, faculty members and administrators talk about the many academic and residential changes at Castleton during his tenure, from a Jeffords Hall and a new tv studio to four new dorms and a totally redone Campus Center. And they talk about him, the man, with awe.
“Dave Wolk is one of those most effective leaders I have ever interacted with,” said Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges system. “Two additional specific, lasting, contributions he has made include the ‘Castleton Way,’ which I interpret as a deep sense of community, pride, and respect throughout the campus… and the integration of Castleton into the Rutland economic and social fabric.”
Psychology professor Terry Bergen, who has taught at Castleton for 40 years, said Wolk’s impact on the university is substantial.
“He took us through a very stable period of growth, and prosperity that was pretty unprecedented in my time here,” Bergen said. “He oversaw a period of sustained and well-managed growth in a way that previous presidents had not, partly because he was here for so long.”
Castleton alumna Molly DeMellier, now the assistant director of the Castleton Fund and donor relations, called Wolk “incredible.”
“He was certainly a huge part of my experience here, and why I wanted to come back, and why I love Castleton so much,” she said. “He gets so much credit for knowing every student’s name. More than just knowing people’s name, he knows things about them.”
Executive assistant Rita Geno, who has worked at Castleton for nearly 40 years and who Wolk jokes “runs my life,” said that she will truly miss him, and that he’s been more than a president – he’s been a mentor and a friend.
“He works hard, he plays hard; he has more energy and love of life and the Castleton family than any president I’ve worked under,” she said. “His enthusiasm and love for Castleton motivates all of us who work beside him.
But according to Wolk, he never felt that he was at the helm of Castleton.
“I’ve just been a passenger on this wonderful journey,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve been driving the bus, I feel like I’ve been just a passenger with a lot of really good people.”