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Memorial Service Tribute

by John Nies, October 17, 2010

Donald C. Mundinger Memorial Service
Illinois College Rammelkamp Chapel | October 17, 2010

Tribute by John Nies | Illinois College Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College (1985-1995)

We are here today to celebrate the life of Dr. Donald C. Mundinger. As the previous speakers have so eloquently articulated, each of us has our own memories of what he meant to us and a personal perspective of his character and the meaning of his life. Unfortunately, within a brief tribute a singular reflection cannot summarize all our collective thoughts about Don. Hopefully, a few comments will connect with some of your memories, and in a limited way, constitute the tribute Don so richly deserves.

What words and phrases come to your mind when you think of Don? Family man? Intellectual? Academician? Man of faith? Integrity? Dignity? Sense of humor? Soft-spoken? Astute politician? And, of course, outstanding college administrator?

For approximately three decades, a theme in the field of leadership has been “servant leadership.” Although Don and I frequently discussed what we were reading, I do not know if Don ever read a single work by any of its proponents/practitioners such as James Autry, but he exemplified that style of leadership every day that I knew him. To summarize servant leadership with admitted oversimplification, an organization’s success is enhanced by the special manner in which the servant leader interacts with other members of the organization. For Don, people did come first. He would agonize over a difficult personnel decision more than any other issue, large or small. Another example, when building budgets, the numbers and dollars considered were always within the context of their impact on students, faculty and staff.

As a servant leader, discussion and debate formed the foundation of Don’s decision making. To me, he perfected the power of soft-spoken persuasion. Never did he say, “You are wrong.” Nor did I ever hear him raise his voice when he disagreed with someone. In those instances, Don would offer his alternative idea or plan with the belief that it would carry the day if it had sufficient merit. Nevertheless, if unanimity or consensus did not prevail, he made the difficult decision with the commitment to share his reasons. Another characteristic of a servant leader.

Don’s confidence in his decision-making process seemed an appropriate outgrowth of his intellectual prowess combined with his inherent caring and compassion. Because of his educational accomplishments and his continuing intellectual curiosity, he was an avid reader, and as a result, a highly informed and reasoned decision-maker and conversationalist.

Like all servant leaders, his confidence never spawned arrogance, nor success an ego. In fact, I never remember Don claiming success for himself. He publicly recognized the efforts of his predecessors and the value of the established heritage and mission of the College, and he quickly gave credit for any success to contemporary colleagues – trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and donors. Only on those rare occasions when results fell short of the goal did he claim individual responsibility. Again, he exhibited the characteristic of servant leader: success is a group effort, anything less rests with the leader. But his approach also reflected his deep sense of personal integrity. To paraphrase Don, “In the end, it comes down to how we feel when we see ourselves in the mirror each morning.”

Why was Don a servant leader even if the concept may not have been a conscious model for him? From my perspective, it was the result of faith and family. His faith shaped him, but it was not restrictive intellectually. It provided fundamental guidelines, but continuing spiritual inquiry was a source of growth and strength, not doubt. (We frequently exchanged humorous stories about the “differences” between his “flaming liberal” Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition and my “correct” Wisconsin Synod Lutheran tradition. How we ended up living and working among progressive Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the United Church of Christ, was another interesting story, and very enjoyable journey.) From another perspective, I thought of Don and a Christian humanist. He was a social scientist, political scientist, with life-long interests in the humanities, as well as the sciences and fine arts.

For Don, family also defined him. He did speak occasionally of his parents and brother, but some of us knew only of the wonderful affection for their three children and the special loving relationship between Don and June. Indeed, although Don was very articulate, we understood that June meant more to him than he could sometimes put into words. From elementary school to this past summer, your story is one to be admired, and for many, an enviable example.

But any tribute to Don would be incomplete without mention of his sense of humor, usually the self-depreciating type, and his “wild side.” Well, wild side may be a bit of an exaggeration, but his use of a radar detector in the College car was a bit of surprise as was his description of a Gibson as an “excellent Christian drink.” And there will always be the memories of his stories about Illinois politics. As a political scientist, Don understood political realities and often found much humor in them. Another personal memory, the vent on the roof of newly-constructed Kirby Learning Center was a few inches too short, and at significant expense, would need to be extended before the building could be occupied. As we observed the unacceptable vent, Don’s infectious chuckle emerged and he said, “A lesson learned; there is always a price to pay when you come up short.”

In summary, Donald C. Mundinger was a gentle, dignified man because of faith and family, and most capable because of character and intellect. Institutions, especially, Illinois College, multiple organizations and countless individuals touched by his life directly or indirectly are all the better for it. Perhaps that is his greatest tribute.

President Mundinger, Don, I will miss our frequent telephone conversations. I looked forward to our wide-ranging discussions. I was proud to be one of your colleagues and to claim you as a mentor, but most of all, I was honored to be your friend. Sometimes, you summarized your approach to life, “When it gives you a lemon, make lemonade.” If only you could have done that one more time. But that was not God’s will.” And so our sorrow has turned to celebration as we remember your participation in our lives and know that you now enjoy God’s greatest blessing – the promised reward for a person of faith, a person who was appreciated and respected, admired and loved during his lifetime. Well done good and faithful servant leader.


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