Hencken unusual president, but effective

Lou Hencken calls himself an unusual college president.

Unlike the majority of college administrators, Hencken’s background is not in academic or business affairs. Instead, Hencken’s background in student affairs and the interactions he’s had with students for 41 years have served both him and Eastern well.

As he tells his story, it is obvious that Hencken is entirely comfortable in his role as Eastern’s president. Dressed in a very presidential dark suit, deep red shirt and striped tie, he leans back slightly in his chair and small, content smile crosses his face as he remembers the four decades he has spent at Eastern.

“I went into this whole profession because I like working with students and making a difference,” Hencken said.

One way Hencken still works directly with Eastern students is on move-in day, one of his favorite days of the school year. It is also a day where he takes an unusual approach to the job of college president. Dressed like every other volunteer in a Panther Pals shirt, Hencken spends his day during move-in ferrying students and families around campus in a golf cart.

Hencken views his role during move-in day as a day to learn about the university. He doesn’t tell any of the students or families he takes back and forth from Textbook Rental his name. His fear is that people won’t be honest with him if he tells them he is the president of the university. By remaining just an anonymous volunteer, he is able to get firsthand knowledge about either how great move-in is going or snags to be fixed for the next year.

Hencken cherishes these personal connections with students. The greatest honor is for students on campus to just call him Lou. He says he was particularly honored by a headline that ran in The Daily Eastern News about the search for his successor and people applying to be “the new Lou.”

Hencken is not only the president of Eastern, but a fixture of the university as well. He said, however, that when he was a student at Eastern, people were awed by the presence of the president. It was a position of power that students did not relate to, but he wants everybody-students, faculty and staff-to know that he is just like them.

“I go to basketball games and yell and scream,” Hencken says, “and my wife tells me to sit down. She tells me ‘you’re not being presidential when you’re yelling at the referees.'”

Hencken takes on the role of university president when he speaks of the institution where he has worked for more than four decades. He started his career at Eastern as a graduate assistant in the student affairs office, and then moved through the ranks in housing from counselor, assistant and associate director and then director of housing in 1975. His last stops before the presidency were associate vice president for student affairs in 1989 and then vice president for student affairs in 1992.

Eastern’s future, Hencken says, looks very bright with what he called a perfect enrollment for Eastern-about 12,000 students-new buildings on campus and increased fundraising. His only disappointment is the lack of funding received from the state of Illinois. He fears that the necessary tuition increases will price some prospective students out of the market.

“The goal of every administrator is to leave the position in a better way in which you found it,” Hencken said. “I think I’ve left it in better shape, and I say me, but please remember we are a team effort. What we’ve been able to accomplish at this university, we’ve been able to accomplish by having everybody at this university row in the same direction.”

One thing Hencken said he is not is a lame duck president. He is still making plans for Eastern: moving the Honor’s building and Textbook Rental near Greek Court and making decisions about the Doudna Fine Arts building are still things Hencken wants to accomplish before leaving office.

His last goal at Eastern is the Great Beginnings Window Project-replacement windows for the Bridge Lounge in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union etched with the first lines of great literary works.

The idea for Great Beginnings came when Hencken was looking out over the Library Quad through old, leaking windows in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union.

He said: “I’m thinking these windows need to be replaced. If you’re going to replace them, don’t just put another window in. Let’s make it sort of a piece of art. The one thing you’re going to find about Fine Arts-the building is a piece of art. To look at a piece of art, you need to perhaps have a series around you of artist renderings.”

That moment was the genesis of Great Beginnings, and Hencken said he thought there would be perhaps 15 sayings for the windows. However, as of two weeks ago there were more than 150 “Great Beginnings” to choose from. He added that Great Beginnings would be symbolic next fall as the new president of the university cuts the ribbon for the new windows-the unveiling of the last project of his presidency will be one of the first ceremonies the new president completes.

Born and raised in East St. Louis, Hencken credits his first job with defining the type of person he has become. He worked at a place that sold fresh fish and chickens, and it was the smell associated with working there that drove him to study hard.

The importance of honesty and ethics was also something Hencken said he learned from working his first job. After watching his employer pass off thawed turkeys as fresh, Hencken wondered how someone could be so deceitful just to make money. He realized that even one lie could taint how he is perceived.

Those beliefs have stuck with him throughout the years. The importance of honesty is something he said he touts at different speeches he gives. He doesn’t mind people criticizing the decisions he makes, but he said he hopes his reputation for honesty makes people realize that what he says is the truth.

From East St. Louis, Hencken made his way to Easterns for his undergraduate studies. His next educational milestone was his work for Eastern Housing and Dining as a graduate assistant. Four decades later, he’s still at the university he’s come to love.

When he’s not acting in the official or unofficial capacity as Eastern president, Hencken keeps himself busy with several hobbies-mainly revolving around sports. An avid Cardinals fan, Hencken is able to interact with students because of the age-old rivalry between St. Louis and Chicago Cubs fans. While at a gas station during a fundraising trip to San Diego, Hencken jumped up and down when he heard about the Cardinals’ World Series victory.

This love for sports also turned into something of a side career for Hencken. He served from 1996 to 1997 as Eastern’s director of athletics and was an NCAA football referee, officiating in five playoff games, including the 1989 NCAA Division III National Championship game. He said the championship game was the pinnacle of his officiating career. His experience as a referee also made him less prone to nervousness.

“I’ve been booed in a stadium with 35,000 people,” Hencken said. “Going to a faculty senate meeting is a piece of cake.”

Ken Baker, campus recreation director at Eastern, is a neighbor and friend of Hencken. In fact, the two worked on the same officiating crew for many years, starting with high school football and moving up to small colleges.

Baker said many things that made Hencken a good football official also make him a good university president. He emphasized Hencken’s people skills as the main characteristic that made Hencken so successful as both referee and president.

Baker also spoke on Hencken’s unusualness as a university president.

“I don’t think there’s another university in the country with a president as accessible as Hencken.”

At other colleges and universities, Baker said, the position of president is seen as an ivory tower very hard to crack, but it’s not like that at Eastern.

That’s what makes both Hencken and Eastern so special. Hencken’s retirement, Baker said, will be a tremendous loss for the university and students in particular. It would be very difficult for another president to know the university and Charleston better than Hencken.

Wrapped up in Hencken’s love of sports is his love for golf, and although he did not start playing golf until becoming president of Eastern, he said he loves the game. The main reason he took up golf was for the obvious reason that business is now conducted on the golf course.

“I’ll never master the game,” Hencken said, “and that’s why I continue playing.”

But Hencken is not just a university president, a Cardinals fan or a golfer. He is also a family man. Indeed, one of his favorite hobbies is spending time with his two granddaughters, Sierra and Emily. Like most grandparents, Hencken’s face lights up when he talks about his grandchildren.

Almost as a second thought after mentioning his children and grandchildren, Hencken finally remembers the fact that he has been married for 29 years to his wife, Mary Kay. He met his wife, who taught at Charleston High School until her retirement, when she was a nontraditional student at Eastern.

As Hencken approaches his retirement, he said his wife is perhaps less than thrilled at the thought of him not working.

“She has her life during the day and it doesn’t include me,” he said. “She’s happy for me, but she’s afraid I’m going to get bored to tears. I think she’s more concerned that I will be in her way during the year, during the day,” he added jokingly. “I reassured her that I will have an office here on campus somewhere, and I will not bug her during the day.”

Even after retiring, Hencken will not be absent from Eastern. For another year at least, he will teach part time. After that year, his options will be wide open. He didn’t leave out being a consultant or interim president, but he said he could just enjoy teaching, playing golf and volunteering.

“What I want to do more than anything is to unwind and see what things are like,” he said.

Lou Hencken is an unusual college president. His involvement in the lives of Eastern students differentiates him from other college administrators. It is that passion for students that will serve Eastern even after his retirement.

Next year’s move-in day will not be quite the same. If Hencken volunteers to help again, he will just be Lou.