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Fall 2008 | The Next Chapter

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The Kunkels
President Tom Kunkel and his wife Deb in front of their new college-owned home.

A family affair
By Mike Dauplaise ’84

The move to the president’s house means change for the whole family.

To some extent, President Tom Kunkel could lose himself in the crowd when he was one of many prominent Washington, D.C.-area academics. Today, though, he finds himself among only a select few individuals leading institutes of higher education in the Green Bay area.

The president and his wife, Debra Kunkel, are transitioning into new roles as the most public faces of the college. Add in the fact that their college-owned home will play host to a busy schedule of social events and it becomes clear that the Kunkel presidency truly will depend on a partnership on many levels.

Kunkel comes to the presidency from eight years as dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He and Deb are embracing the higher level of visibility that comes with the territory at a small college. They see it as an opportunity for personal growth as they enjoy the journey together.

“We’re sort of taking it as it comes, because neither one of us has done this before,” Deb says. “We’re assuming we’ll be together a lot and learn as we go. I think I want to figure it out for myself.”

The phrase “being the face of the institution” first came up for Tom when he attended a Harvard seminar for new college presidents. It was a concept he hadn’t previously considered as he prepared for his new job. “You do symbolize the institution,” Tom says. “You think about it in ways you never would’ve thought about it before. You’re more likely to run into people you know or who may know you. There’s a responsibility that comes with the presidency that doesn’t exist when you’re a dean or provost.”

Tom started his St. Norbert experience by aggressively meeting a lot of people. It created a schedule that was at the same time enjoyable and exhausting. His single biggest personal concern is finding a work pace that enables him to sustain his energy level.

“I’m hopeful that as we get a semester into this and my newbiness wears off, the crush will slow down and a somewhat normal schedule will take its place,” he says.

The Kunkels arrived in De Pere July 6 and immediately began the task of turning their new home into a combination living space and college showpiece. Located about three-quarters of a mile south of campus, the home offers convenient campus access combined with the tranquility of a private, riverside location. Since so much of the president’s entertainment duties are directly related to official activities, the college decided, with the Kunkels’ arrival, to return to a model in which it owns and maintains the president’s home. The house provides an offsite venue close enough to campus that hospitality services remain a viable option.

 The Kunkels host events or dinners an average of twice per week, making use of a variety of reception areas throughout the first floor. In the living room stands a baby grand piano, on which they hope music students will sometimes provide entertainment. They’re able to leverage the culinary capabilities of the college’s food service team, too. “It’s nice to have a home where you feel comfortable entertaining, and it’s not all on you,” Deb admits.

“We’ll both end up talking to people for three hours and not talk to each other until the end of the party,” Tom says. “That works great, because even though we’re a team, we’re not joined at the hip and she’s definitely her own person. The great thing about this job is we do get to work together in a way that’s functioning as a unit.”

The presidential home is furnished with pieces provided both by the Kunkels and the college. The artwork in the home is also a combination of the Kunkel’s own and pieces from the college collection. The Kunkels say the college art will rotate and they plan to highlight faculty and student work on a regular basis.

The social part of being a college president’s spouse has taken on a heightened level of importance for Deb, who previously focused her time more on the couple’s family responsibilities.

“I’m very much looking forward to doing things with Tom and meeting new people,” Deb says. “When he was dean of the journalism school, I’d go to some social functions with him, but time and distance were greater factors and I was raising our four daughters. Our whole lives have changed and we’re empty-nesters now, so I think I want to figure [the role] out for myself.”

The five-bedroom house has plenty of room for family visits. All four Kunkel children remain in Maryland: Katie, 25 this month, is in her last year of law school at George Mason University and lives at the family home; Claire, 23, is a high school teacher; Helen, 21, is a junior majoring in art at the University of Maryland; and Grace, 19, is a sophomore biology major, also at Maryland.

The Kunkels still consider themselves regular Midwestern folks, true to their Evansville, Ind., roots. It’s a spirit that becomes readily apparent on meeting them. “We felt comfortable here right from the start,” Tom says. “I come more from the private sector, so some people might think I’m more approachable [than a lifelong academic]. But in my experience, that has less to do with your academic pedigree than your approach to life.”

Fall 2008 magazine

Web extras Web exclusives
Look here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current
St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

Photo Gallery Panama research experience
Explore images from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Photo Gallery A most excellent celebration
View images from the inauguration of the new president.

Video The Pursuit of Excellence
Watch the inaugural address delivered by Thomas Kunkel.

Photo Gallery Out to Africa
A photographic essay brings a Zambian connection to life.

Text Extra Bodyguard to the Packers
Enjoy recollections of the Ice Bowl, from the new book by Mike Dauplaise ’84.

Video “Communio”
This new video celebrates the college’s long heritage.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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