67 high schools in 79 days

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Wendler again on the road, again preaches citizenship

Tulia High School counselor Becky Glover escorted Dr. Walter Wendler and Sed Knowlton down a hallway in the newest portion of Tulia High School on an early Monday afternoon on the first day of November.

“And here,” she said, “is our auditorium.”

The room was exceedingly large. There were approximately 900 seats in the spacious auditorium.

“Wow, this is nice,” said the West Texas A&M University president. “You could put all of Tulia in here if you needed to.”

In about 15 minutes, many of the four classes of Tulia High School would be there, more than 200 in all, to listen to Wendler in the 42nd stop in 79 days of Panhandle Community Tour 2.0.

“We’re a public university, and we need to be out there in the public,” Wendler said.

WT certainly has, but more specifically, Wendler certainly has.  On Nov. 1, he spoke to the high schools in Canyon, Tulia and Kress. They were schools No. 41 through 43 of the 66 high schools in Region 16, one of 20 regions in the state under the Texas Education Agency.

His tour began Sept. 14 with the large high schools of Randall, Amarillo High and Tascosa. It will conclude Dec. 2 with a stop in Channing, which has a high school enrollment of 35. The tour goes from Tascosa’s enrollment of 2,196 to Hedley’s 30, from just a few miles away at Canyon High School to 162 miles away to speak to Follett’s senior class of 12.

“It’s important to show leadership interest and commitment to the people in the area we serve,” Wendler said. “I want to be one of the most dedicated public-serving universities in Texas. That’s an important goal for this university.”

Since Wendler took over the presidency in 2016, this is his third such tour of more than 130 high schools in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains. The first one was in 2017.

He was asked by a student toward the end of the tour four years ago when he would do this again. Wendler quipped, “I’ve been married to my wife Mary for 44 years. I’d like to make it to 45.”

Yet he was back at it two years later with a nearly 7,000-mile tour of Region 17 schools in the Lubbock area, 67 in all. Since mid-September, he and Knowlton, WT’s assistant director of admissions, have hit the interstates and farm-to-market roads of the Panhandle, sometimes reaching as many as four high schools in one day, in his second tour of traveling duty in the Panhandle.

And it didn’t involve a marriage counselor. Walter and Mary Wendler are approaching a half-century of marriage.

At Tulia, the WT president played to the crowd. It was just three days earlier the Tulia football team notched a huge upset over defending 3A state champion Canadian, 54-35. It was one of the biggest upsets for the Hornets in decades.

“Did you guys have a football game on Friday?” he began.

To which loud cheers and a few “Go Hornets!” indicated that, yes, they did.

Wendler handed out four letters of recognition to students who competed in a recent industrial arts welding competition. But pumping up students about a football game and the public relations gesture of handing out commendation letters are not his primary purpose.

‘This guy cares about us’

His talk to students is always about 15 minutes. He encouraged them to devise what he calls “A Plan for One,” a specific plan designed for each student that includes post-high school education, training or the military. There’s also a pointed emphasis on citizenship.

Being the president of a university, there’s also a 15-minute video on WT that goes into greater detail about the opportunity as well as scholarship and admission availabilities.  Within each video, there’s an interview of a recent graduate of that high school who is now a student at WT.

“I’m partial to WT,” Wendler told the juniors and seniors at Kress. “I like it. I got a paycheck deposited today from WT that allows me to do certain things. But my purpose is not to pedal as much for WT as it is to get you to really think about your future.”

The immediate future would be to take college debt seriously. Wendler has preached this for four years: Don’t come to WT if you have to borrow money the first two years to attend. Sure, the Buffs would accept a student if that were still the case, but Wendler suggests that students attend a community college first to lower debt.

If a student must borrow money over the last two to three years of his education, Wendler said, the college loan should not exceed 60 percent of the expected first-year salary after graduation.

“When I first went with Dr. Wendler and heard him say, wait to go to WT to keep from borrowing money, it blew my mind a little bit,” said Knowlton, who has missed only five schools on the tour with his boss. “But he’s all about the best interest of the students.

“That alone hits home – ‘this guy cares about us.’ It has changed the way we recruit as well, and I believe it’s effective.”

At Canyon High School, Wendler spoke to about 400 students at 8:15 a.m., impressive because school on that day did not start until 8:45 a.m. He made it a point to touch on a hometown student attending the local university.

“I taught at Texas A&M for a long time, and both my sons attended A&M and had good experiences,” Wendler said. “Josie Hicks, who is on the video from Canyon and went to WT, will tell you she had a good experience. Amberly Hildebrandt, also on the video, is a graduate of Randall High School, lived at home and commuted and had a great experience at WT; she now works in Wendler’s office.

“Sometimes newness breeds familiarity that at times doesn’t play fair with some local attractions. I’m from New York, and half the people I know from New York can see the Statue of Liberty from their bedroom window and have never been there because they see it. These two on the video had a great experience at WT even though they were from the community. I say that not as an apology, but as a point of information.”

Though on a time schedule, Wendler engages with students afterward as long as there is interest and as long as he won’t be late for his next appointment. At Kress, which had 34 junior and senior students in the library, he talked at length with juniors Alfonso Chapa and his cousin, Ethan Crump.

Chapa’s parents are disabled and on fixed income. He would be a first generation college student and wants to attend WT.  There are multiple scholarship avenues available for him, Wendler told him.

A college education though is just part of the process. Just as big a part is the maturity of the student.

“The purpose of a university is to help people become ‘engaged citizens,’” Wendler told students. “By that, it’s someone who is able to support himself, their family, be involved in their community, their state, their country and to appreciate the values of a free republic. Engaged citizenship is the most important purpose of a university.”

It’s simply not common to see a university presidents forsake their office for a high school auditorium – especially 66 times in one year, and nearly 200 times on three different tours.

“Traditionally, you have counselors, recent graduates, 22-, 23-year-olds and they can do something similar with a Power Point presentation,” Knowlton said. “Very seldom do you see someone over the age of 30 and over the position of recruiter or counselor do these. So when you see a university president in little Lazbuddie, that’s a commitment to a community and the students.”

It can have its occasional ego boost too. At one visit to a small Panhandle town where the elementary school can blend into other parts of the school, Wendler and a school administrator were walking down the hall when they encountered some small children walking with a teacher as they held a rope.

“Are you the president?” one asked

“I am,” Wendler said.

“He thinks you’re president of the United States,” Wendler was told.

Just as well.

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, event, alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu.

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