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Resilient David Wolk Champions Castleton University


Published August 26, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 3, 2015 at 6:00 p.m.

David Wolk - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • David Wolk

Between the playing fields that serve the Castleton Spartans, a marble monument tells the story of the Greek king Leonidas and how he bravely resisted an army of invaders.

David Wolk chose the 22,000-pound stone from a Rochester quarry and had it polished and engraved in Barre. As Castleton's longest-serving president and its cheerleader-in-chief, he hoped the monument's message, titled "Spartan Pride," would inspire students. He installed it six years ago, just after the college football team's inaugural season in a brand-new stadium.

Players quickly made the monument the focus of a new Castleton tradition, stopping to touch it on their way to practices and games. It offers no guarantees of victory on the field but is an apt symbol for the little college's fighting spirit to survive — and make a name for itself — in the increasingly competitive world of higher education.

  • Courtesy Photo
  • Diane Wolk

For the past 14 years, Wolk has labored to transform Castleton from a tiny, isolated college into a growing university with adequate funding, marketable programs and satisfied students. Last month, it got a new name: Castleton State College became Castleton University.

"Not a lot of colleges are planning on increasing their enrollment these days," said Vermont State Colleges chancellor Jeb Spaulding, who oversees Castleton and four other state colleges. "Dave's different. His plan is, 'I'm building something that's attractive.'"

"He's the pied piper of Castleton and Rutland County."

Just as impressive is the fact that 62-year-old Wolk managed to remake Castleton while he waged another, personal battle. Beneath the engraved tale of the Spartan king, there's a hint at that story, too. In small type at the bottom of the rock, it reads, "In honor of Dr. Diane Wolk."

Wolk's life is so intertwined with his work at Castleton that he brought in this monument, at his own expense, not just to create a Castleton tradition, but as a tribute to his wife. Diane Wolk was longtime teacher, school principal, chair of the State Board of Education and one-time director of student teaching at Castleton. She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2007, on her 57th birthday, four years after she first started noticing symptoms.

David Wolk watched in awe as his wife accepted her fate and even strove to demystify the cruel disease. In 2008, she rallied 400 friends to take part in a "Walk With Wolk" Alzheimer's fundraiser, and, while the disease had already started to affect her mind, she addressed the crowd. Quoting Lou Gehrig, she said she felt like the luckiest person in the world.

"She just stood up and was very brave," Wolk recalled. "The monument is a testament to a woman who had a lot of courage." Diane Wolk died last month.

'The Castleton Way'

David Wolk greeting students at a barbecue on campus - TEARSA BRANNOCK
  • Tearsa Brannock
  • David Wolk greeting students at a barbecue on campus

Tony Volpone was the football coach for opposing Endicott College when his team visited Castleton State College in 2013. Endicott defeated Castleton 43-7 that day, but the "losing" side left an indelible impression on Volpone.

He saw a stately new stadium filled with an enthusiastic crowd, a marching band, fans holding tailgate parties in the parking lot, a bouncy house for kids. And at the end of the game, the team locked arms and led the crowd in the singing of the alma mater.

"I was so impressed with what I saw," Volpone said. "It made me go, 'Wow, I could really see myself here.'" A year later, he became Castleton's head coach. Volpone credits Wolk for the scene that sold him.

For most of those home-game Saturdays, Wolk is in the crowd, beaming, with his soon-to-be-96-year-old father, Arthur. "It's a beautiful thing," he said. It's what Wolk envisioned when he became Castleton president in 2001 and set in place a 10-year plan to boost the college's profile.

Wolk was uniquely positioned when he took the job running the public college in his native Rutland County. The son of a local pediatrician, he graduated from Rutland High School and Middlebury College and went on to a career as a teacher, principal and school superintendent. Wolk also represented Rutland County for four years in the state Senate, made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 1992 and served as chief of policy for governor Howard Dean before becoming state education commissioner.

By the time he took over at Castleton, he had experience navigating educational and political waters. Wolk also brought boundless optimism and salesmanship to the job.

Zachary Devoid of St. Albans, a senior computer information systems major and lacrosse player at Castleton, remembered meeting Wolk at the start of his freshman year. The president hosts a barbecue for new students every year at his on-campus house. Later, when Devoid's lacrosse team was holding an all-night fundraiser in memory of a student, Wolk came by with pizza.

"He eats in the dining halls. He goes to sporting events," Devoid said. "He's very personable."

"At orientation last year, he shook everybody's hand and introduced himself. It was really cool," said Cassie Papandrea, a senior English major from Orwell who was on campus last month getting ready for this year's orientation.

Spaulding said he visited Wolk at Castleton recently and went off on his own to the gym. When he returned to Wolk's house, he said, "I asked him, 'How come all these students look me in the eye and open the door for me?' He said, 'It's the Castleton way. They have to open doors for people, and they have to pick up trash.'"

In fact, there's no rule about acting responsibly, but Devoid said the campus is so close-knit that people just do.

Wolk has created a campus atmosphere that makes students want to stay, said Scott Giles, president of Vermont Student Assistance Corp., whose organization administers college loans and interacts with a wide variety of colleges. Although its student-retention rate hasn't budged much in the last decade — it's average, at 73 percent — Castleton's six-year graduation rate has climbed by nearly 10 percent. Enrollment has grown from 1,598 in 2000 to 2,183 last year. The goal is to reach 2,500 by 2023.

Students, faculty and outsiders have noticed a difference.

"Castleton has been one of the real success stories," Giles said, likening its emergence to Champlain College's transformation from a two-year to a four-year school a decade and a half ago.

"Dave has been really, really successful in taking an institution that had a reputation as something of a suitcase college — where you can get a solid degree but you leave to do other things on the weekend," Giles said. "What he's really done is transform the campus. It's a community that meets a student's full range of needs."

Double Duty

The marble monument - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • The marble monument

Not every faculty member was convinced Castleton needed football, according to Louis "Tersh" Palmer, a union rep and English professor. Some "would like to see more emphasis on academics," he said, and "throw all the rest of that stuff out."

The football program has had some problems. In 2011, its first coach was forced to resign after allegedly violating National Collegiate Athletic Association rules by arranging loans for an athlete. In 2013, six players were suspended from the team following a scheme to steal sporting goods from a store.

In both cases, Wolk publicly acknowledged the fumbles and recovered the ball. "We will stay positive and upbeat as we move forward together as a family," he said in response to the 2013 case.

He took the same approach to his wife's illness. Diane Wolk, who'd been named the state's teacher of the year in 1984, was the popular principal of Rutland's Northeast Primary School when Alzheimer's began to manifest itself. In his Woodruff Hall office, Wolk keeps a photo of her 2006 retirement; it shows his wife surrounded by smiling children — a happy spin on a somber moment.

Wolk likes to focus on the positive. He hands out cards printed in Castleton green that say, "Keep smiling." And, amazingly, it works.

He tried to follow his own advice during the nine-year ordeal that Wolk calls the "long goodbye." But he also acknowledged it's been a roller-coaster ride. Asked how he managed the double duties of handling his wife's illness and raising the college's profile — two long but very different journeys — Wolk said candidly, "I didn't."

He relied on his team at Castleton, he said, and there were times he considered quitting to become his wife's full-time nurse. But as the disease progressed, Wolk realized she needed professional care. Diane had chosen to move to Florida, where she could participate in Alzheimer's research and access different levels of specialized care. Wolk said his wife actually preferred being far away because it spared her friends and colleagues the pain of watching her decline. "She didn't want to make them sad," he said with admiration. But for Wolk, who visited many weekends, it was a long haul.

"I think it's been very difficult," said Spaulding, who served in the state Senate with Wolk in the 1980s. "But I think Castleton University is part of his family. It's part of what's enabled him to continue."

Wolk confirmed that Castleton was his salvation during that decade of decline. "I was able to dive into the college," he said. "It gave new meaning to my life."

Castleton had 12 athletic teams when Wolk arrived on campus. It now has 27, which is more than any other Vermont state college or the University of Vermont. The school is providing Vermont students with an opportunity to play college sports in their home state. And they're tuition-paying students. Because it is Division III, Castleton doesn't offer athletic scholarships.

The school has added a lot more than sports teams. It has invested more than $75 million in new construction and renovations to every building on campus. The college has gone from offering one master's degree to 10, with plans to add doctorates in education and nursing practice.

While some Vermont state colleges have endured layoffs, Castleton has avoided them, according to Wolk. The college does plan to cut one program next year, though: its associate's degree in nursing, a program that Vermont Technical College offers.

Wolk has also launched a variety of branded initiatives that are generating revenue: The Castleton Polling Institute, which conducts paid surveys for Vermont politicians and media outlets, is expanding and going national; the Castleton Center for Schools brought 800 Vermont teachers to campus this summer for continuing education; the Castleton Downtown Gallery showcases art — and the Castleton name — in downtown Rutland. The university also owns the Spartan Arena at Rutland's Diamond Run Mall, a public operation that gives students real-world business experience. The college bought the building to accommodate its men's and women's hockey teams, which Wolk started in 2003. When they aren't practicing or playing there, it's a rental rink and fitness center.

The income-generating programs have been developed in response to a shrinking pool of college-age students and declining state funding. Vermont routinely ranks near the bottom in state support for its public colleges. This year, Vermont State Colleges will receive $24.4 million from the state, which is split equally among the five colleges. Castleton's allotment pays just 10 percent of its budget.

"We're getting less money from the state this year than we got in 2008 or '09," Wolk said, and he knows enough about Vermont politics to realize that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

The name change is also intended to counteract the lack of state funding. Wolk said he hopes Castleton University will attract more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition. Currently, 74 percent of its students are in-staters. By 2023, Castleton's goal is to have a 60-40 in-state versus out-of-state split. Wolk said Castleton's main mission remains to serve Vermonters but will reflect the reality that there are fewer college-age students in the state. Castleton's other programs within the community, including the polling institute and the Spartan Arena, are examples of other ways it's contributing to the public good.

Particularly for international students who equate the word "college" with high school, the "university" designation should send a clearer message. Castleton had 25 students from other countries last year and expects 50 this year, Wolk said. The college upped its overseas admissions efforts by hiring a Chinese-American recruitment coordinator and making two trips to China last year, he said. As part of a residency, 13 Chinese scholars are due on campus this fall.

During the 15 years he's taught at Castleton, English prof Palmer has seen enrollment and programs expand and the quality of students grow. "There really has been an improvement in morale, in offerings," he said. Football, he acknowledged, helped.

What's in a Name Change?

The stadium - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • The stadium

As Vermont's colleges struggle with dwindling resources and occasional layoffs, can the state afford to keep all five alive — plus the University of Vermont? In a recent commentary, Hinesburg author Bill Schubart took on the issue, arguing, "Vermonters can't adequately fund six colleges in a time of declining enrollments." He contended that renaming Castleton was not the answer.

"I really doubt that their new name will do much to solve the enrollment and cost challenges facing all our small state colleges, to say nothing of our students," he said.

Spaulding, who took over as chancellor last year, said he's heard all of those arguments before, but he sees no reason to consolidate. "We actually need the colleges we have," he said.

Spaulding argued that Castleton's name change will be good for all of them, adding that none of the other college administrators objected.

Each of the state colleges has — and should have — its own identity, Spaulding said. Lyndon has the largest percentage of out-of-staters, a strong meteorology program and an innovative electronic journalism program. Johnson is known for external degrees for nontraditional students, social service programs and the performing arts. The bread and butter of Vermont Technical College is its two-year engineering degree. Community College of Vermont offers an affordable start for students of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Castleton's specialty is being less specialized. "It's a small university that has a robust graduate program combined with broad academic programs," Spaulding said. "It's the only public higher ed institution in Vermont with a football team, and it's got a very lively campus."

Wolk acknowledged that the name change is really about perception.

When Richard Stockton College of New Jersey became Stockton University this year, the goal was to "raise the school's profile, helping it attract faculty, students — especially graduate and international students — and raise funds," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Massachusetts state colleges changed their names in 2010, though they retained the word "state," so that Bridgewater State College became Bridgewater State University.


Castleton students are buying into the idea that Castleton University carries just a little bit more prestige. "It means we're expanding, we're growing," said Papandrea.

"It's going to help the college bring in more students," Devoid said. It might look a little jazzier on his résumé, too, he said.

For Wolk, the name change marks a major milestone for Castleton, which has actually had seven other appellations since 1787: It's been Rutland County Grammar School, Vermont Classical High School, Castleton Seminary, State Normal School at Castleton, Castleton Normal School and Castleton State Teachers College. The Castleton State College designation dates to 1962.

"Modernizing our name reflects who we've become and who we aspire to be," he said. "It's a wonderful turning point for a wonderful institution."

The idea for the name change emerged two or three years ago as Castleton administrators crafted Wolk's second 10-year plan. Although he was a driving force behind it, the visionary president had to miss some of the meetings that made it happen, during which his staff pitched the idea to the Vermont State College committees. In the last few months, as his wife's health worsened, he spent more time in Florida than Vermont. He was with Diane when she died there on July 4.

"Our goal was that her death be peaceful and painless," he said. "It was that." In the weeks after, Wolk received hundreds of messages from his wife's former students, colleagues and friends telling him how much Diane had meant to them.

"Kids just loved her," said David Blow, a Castleton journalism professor who had Diane as a first-grade teacher. His mother, Lucille, who taught alongside her at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, told her son that Wolk's was the most difficult condolence card she has ever had to write.

When the full Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees gathered July 23 to make a final decision on the name change, David Wolk traveled to Montpelier for the meeting. "I just wanted to be there, because it was historic," he said. The vote was unanimous. Word went viral as Castleton spokesman Jeff Weld announced the move on Twitter and Facebook, and the university's website got more than 10,000 hits.

Afterward, Wolk continued on to Burlington to board a plane for Florida, where two days later family gathered for a celebration of Diane's life. In his eulogy, Wolk spoke about his wife's courage.

"Her life was full of teachable moments, and this was the final one," he said.

Diane Wolk's family members divided her ashes for each to scatter as he or she wished. The next week, Wolk returned to Castleton. That Friday afternoon, he and two of their four children went to the Spartan monument and spread her remains at the base of the rock that honors and encourages brave souls.

Castleton at a Glance:

Founded: 1787 (Vermont's first college)
Enrollment: 2,183
2015-16 tuition: $10,248 in-state, $25,656 out-of-state
Faculty: 98 full time, 145 part time
First-year retention: 73%
Graduation rate: 49%
Acceptance rate: 78.9%
Degrees conferred 2013-14: 87 associate's, 371 bachelor's, 26 master's
Athletic teams: 27
Ethnicity: 83% white

Correction: An enrollment graphic with this article contained errors, and it was replaced on 9/3/15. Further, the "Degrees conferred 2013-14" figures in the "Castleton at a Glance" section above previously had been mislabeled.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Wolk On"

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