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UMN Alumni News: Susan Hagstrum: A tough act to follow


Susan Hagstrum, married to University President Bob Bruininks, is not only the U’s most dedicated volunteer, she’s a tireless champion of finding a cure for multiple sclerosis.

Susan Hagstrum
Photo by Sara Rubinstein
Susan Hagstrum

It’s a chilly fall evening, but the atmosphere at Eastcliff, the official home of the University of Minnesota’s president, is warm and welcoming. Members of the Friends of Eastcliff Book Club, established by University President Bob Bruininks and his wife, Susan Hagstrum (M.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’87), are gathered in the dining room, talking in groups and enjoying refreshments. Some of the warmth comes from Hagstrum, who circulates throughout the room. A self-described “high-E extrovert,” she is relaxed and quick to laugh and focuses intently on the person she is speaking to.

Hagstrum calls the club members together into the living room and takes her seat in front of the fireplace next to the evening’s featured author, David Lebedoff (B.A. ’60), an award-winning author of five books, a Twin Cities attorney, and a University regent from 1977 to 1989. “All of the authors have a connection to the University,” Hagstrum says. “And we don’t choose their book unless they agree to come to the meeting,” she adds with a smile. This evening, there is a good turnout, more than 20 members. Bruininks melts into the group, sitting on a couch with other members, books in their laps.

The group focuses on Hagstrum, who occasionally glances at note cards as she introduces Lebedoff and his book, The Same Man, a dual biography of the British authors George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. She speaks easily and holds the attendees’ attention. Lebedoff has a tough act to follow.

“People in attendance have a lot more fun because of her,” Bruininks says. “She is upbeat, positive, magnetic.”

Hagstrum treats everyone as her personal guest, and all of them are: She is the hostess of Eastcliff, in the tradition established by previous first ladies. It’s a role she relishes and is well-suited to. But in the six years Bruininks has been president, Hagstrum has also carved out her own role. And while she has accomplished much for the University, she won’t be satisfied until she achieves one particularly important goal: establishing a center for multiple sclerosis (MS) research and treatment at the U.

Being First Lady was not in Hagstrum’s career plan. When Bruininks’ presidency began, in 2002, she had worked in K-12 education for 27 years and had a demanding career as a consultant to school districts and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and management, working on everything from helping suburban districts develop voluntary desegregation plans to working with school boards on board development.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in speech pathology from Northwestern University, Hagstrum taught in Chicago for a year before ending up back home in Minnesota, working for several suburban public schools, first as a speech pathologist, then, after earning her master’s in speech pathology, coordinating special education programs, and finally in administration.

It was while she was working on her doctorate in education policy and administration that Hagstrum and Bruininks met. It was 1981, and he was chair of the psychosocial studies department in the U’s College of Education and Human Development. “He offered a job that paid half what I was making,” Hagstrum recalls.  She turned down the offer. “I was single and I had a mortgage to pay.”

Hagstrum’s Ties to the U
When speaking to friends and alumni of the University, President Bob Bruininks often points out that he has been associated with the U for 40 years—a quarter of its history. He joined the faculty in 1968 and has served as a dean, executive vice president and provost, and interim president before being officially tapped as president in 2002.

One could argue, however, that his wife’s roots to the U run even deeper. “I grew up around this university,” says Susan Hagstrum (M.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’87), who was born and raised in St. Paul, not far from Eastcliff. Her father and three brothers all graduated from the University. In 1989, her uncles Jean and Homer Hagstrum had the distinction of becoming only the second set of brothers to receive honorary degrees from the U in the same ceremony (the first were the Mayo brothers). Her father, Hugh Vincent Hagstrum (B.A. ’39) and always called Vincent, was named after George Vincent, the U’s third president. “My grandmother admired educators,” Hagstrum explains. “She had a great deal of respect for George Vincent.”

In 1996, Hagstrum was invited to do some consulting with a school district in Scottsdale, Arizona. At the time, her interest in climbing the career ladder of K-12 administration was waning. She explains, “I was approaching 50, a time when a lot of my friends were looking at superintendencies. I wasn’t sure if it would be enough fun—talking to teachers about salaries, etc.,” she explains. So she jumped at the consulting job, using vacation time from her education administration job to work on the project and finding a vocation she loved.

When Bruininks became president in 2002, their kids were grown and had moved on and Hagstrum’s consulting business was so busy that she was turning away work. The two hardly saw each other. “Bob was about a year into his presidency when he said, ‘I miss you. Would you be willing to set [your career] aside?’?” Hagstrum recalls. Bruininks proposed that she expand the role of the president’s spouse by becoming a University associate, a full-time volunteer.

“We talked about it and put her anticipated schedule next to mine, and we would not have been even ships passing in the night,” Bruininks recalls.

It was not a hard sell, Hagstrum says. “It was a mutual decision; we were both kind of frustrated” by their lack of time together. And besides, “There were grand things going on around here,” she says. “I didn’t want to keep missing all the fun.”

Today, as a University associate, Hagstrum has a part-time assistant and is reimbursed for expenses such as mileage. “I’m uncompensated and welcome to do what I choose to do,” Hagstrum explains. “I’m appreciative that I can do this work.”

Says Bruininks: “She’s a spectacular representative of the University.”

What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease that strikes the central nervous system. The severity and progression of the disease vary widely from person to person. Patients with mild to moderate MS may experience few or slight symptoms (such as numbness of some limbs), while at its most severe the disease can be disabling, causing paralysis and blindness.

What causes MS? To date, no single cause has been identified. Many scientists believe that multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when a “perfect storm” of immunological, environmental, genetic, and infectious factors come together.

Who gets MS?
Women are two to three times more likely than men to get MS. In addition:

· The farther a person lives from the equator, the more likely he or she is to get MS. Minnesota has the most MS cases per capita in the United States.

· MS occurs in most ethnic groups, but the highest rates occur in people of northern European origin.

· Although MS is not an inherited disease, a genetic component does exist. People who have close relatives with MS are more likely to have it; the more immediate the relative, the higher the odds.

· Approximately 400,000 Americans have been diagnosed with MS; around 200 new cases are diagnosed each week.

How is MS treated? Is there a cure? To date, a cure for MS has not been identified. However, medication is available that can, in many cases, slow the disease’s progression or relieve its symptoms.

Traditionally the spouse of the U of M president serves as an ambassador of sorts for the institution, as does Hagstrum. But as the U’s chief volunteer, she has sharply outlined the role for whoever follows her. “Most often, university spouses’ service is [through] involvement with the arts,” she says. “It’s an important role.” Hagstrum has served on the boards of the Weisman Art Museum, Bell Museum of Natural History, and the Duluth campus’s Tweed Art Museum. “I’m really proud to have helped the Weisman gather the funds to do the addition,” she says, referring to the $10 million expansion that will add 11,000 square feet to the museum. “We’re moving forward; we’ve met our goal.” She has helped the Bell Museum land some major gifts, has supported collaboration between the Weisman and Tweed museums, and is planning to host a Twin Cities fundraiser for the Tweed. “There are a lot of UMD grads in the Twin Cities,” she notes.

Hagstrum has also served on the boards of the University of Minnesota Pediatrics Foundation, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and the College of Education and Human Development.  “As a graduate of that college, it’s near and dear to my heart,” says Hagstrum, who was named one of its distinguished alumni during the college’s centennial. Hagstrum has been an invaluable fundraiser (or “friend raiser” as she puts it) for various University projects. “That’s probably the major thing I do,” Hagstrum says. “It’s across the board. There are no limitations on department or college. I consider that my responsibility.”

Hagstrum is active with a variety of organizations in the wider community as well and serves on the boards of the Guthrie Theater and the Minnesota chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “Susan has a certain cachet,” says Maureen Reeder, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “She can reach out and access people we can’t reach in any other way. And she makes people feel appreciated and special. We are very lucky to have her.”

 Hagstrum has strong convictions about issues surrounding MS: Her mother was disabled by the disease.

“My mother was a heroic woman,” Hagstrum says. “She was very brave, a saint. She was diagnosed in her 40s; I think she had it in her 20s. My parents were very good about being sure [the children] were not responsible for mother’s care. My grandmother moved in and took care of her.”

Hagstrum’s grandmother had been an executive with Pacific Light and Power.

“She was a disciplined, strong, demanding woman,” Hagstrum recalls. As her grandmother aged and MS ravaged Hagstrum’s mother, the family turned to in-home care. Hagstrum’s mother experienced some paralysis and required special transportation to leave her home, usually only for doctor’s appointments. “And she suffered the indignities of losing her bowel and bladder function,” Hagstrum says. Her mother died at home at the age of 76.

Hagstrum, who serves on the MS Society’s executive committee and is in line to become board chair, isn’t valuable only for her connections. “Susan is willing to take on difficult projects,” Reeder says. As an example, she recalls a scholarship program for the children of MS patients. “Not a lot of people would take leadership to raise money for something new,” she says. “Susan said, ‘I will.’?”

Hagstrum’s work on MS issues goes beyond volunteering for the MS Society. She dreams of establishing a center at the U for multiple sclerosis research, treatment, and education, the first such center in the Midwest. And she’s determined to make that dream come true.

Her personal qualities coupled with the experience of watching her mother suffer make Hagstrum unstoppable in working toward establishing an MS center, says Gareth Parry, M.D., a professor of neurology at the U. He and Hagstrum, together with Reeder, whose mother also had MS, are working hard to make an MS center a reality.

So where does Hagstrum come in? “The first word that comes to mind: enthusiasm!” says Parry. “She’s a pistol. So much energy! She accepts rejection with extremely good grace but extreme reluctance. She just looks for another strategy to reach her goal.”

That kind of persistence—and Hagstrum’s fundraising ability—may be key to finally establishing an MS center. So far, just the three of them are working on the proposal, though they do have the ear of leadership at the U’s Medical School and Academic Health Center. “The current economic crisis doesn’t make this an easy time” to establish the MS center, says Hagstrum, who, nonetheless, is undeterred. This is a project that just can’t wait, she says, pointing out that Minnesota is the nation’s MS capital (see sidebar at left). And she underscores the need for more neurologists trained to treat patients with MS. “Many of the neurologists in the Twin Cities [who treat MS] are nearing retirement.”

Bruininks’ current term as president ends in 2011. And while Bruininks and Hagstrum look forward to traveling more, such as to the West Coast where their three grandsons live or to their cabin in northeastern Minnesota, the Twin Cities is their permanent home.

“Like many people, this university changed my life,” Hagstrum says. “I knew what I was doing when I put my career on hold.” Being a University associate and president’s spouse “is the best and most fun job I’ve ever had.”

Hagstrum predicts Bruininks will rejoin the U faculty after his presidency and says she’ll continue pouring her energy into finding a cure for MS. “If I won the lottery, I would make that MS center happen tomorrow,” she says. “I’d fund an endowed chair, therapy pools, workout facilities. I care about this because this has such a deeply personal meaning to me. If I could look back on these years and see that happening, I would feel an unbelievable sense of accomplishment.”

Continues Hagstrum: “I think I would hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘Good girl, Susan.’ ”  

Michele St. Martin is a former editor of the Minnesota Women’s Press and is currently executive editor at New Moon Girl Media.

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