MARQUETTE - As former Northern Michigan University President Les Wong readies himself for a new job as president of San Francisco State University, there is one thing he'll miss about Northern: Wildcat sports.
"The hope, because (SFSU does) have varsity baseball and softball, it will almost salve my hockey cravings - almost," said Wong in an interview with The Mining Journal just after he announced his resignation. "I told (NMU Hockey) Coach (Walt) Kyle and (NMU Football) Coach (Chris) Ostrowski that I might have to take some time and fly to wherever they're playing. But I'll be wearing purple."
Wong accepted the position at SFSU earlier this month, making the decision public May 10. On Aug. 1, he will take over the top position at a university that boasts a much bigger student population at roughly 30,000 to Northern's 9,000 and is set in a much more urban setting.
Les Wong, who is preparing after eight years to depart Northern Michigan University for the top job at San Francisco State University, is pictured speaking at a recent press conference. (Journal file photo)
The move is also a return home for both he and his wife, Phyllis.
"That's our home. I was born and raised in the bay area. My wife was born and raised there. The vast majority of our family is there," Wong said. "We both left nearly 40 years ago and that's one reason why it's a little bit emotional because we, in fact, are going home."
He also said though he thought of retiring for good once he was finished at NMU, as a professional, he was always looking for another opportunity.
"I don't think you ever stop thinking about going to another university. At Northern was the first time ever that I thought about, 'Here's where I would like to end my career,' and then you kind of slap yourself and you keep remembering that you tell all of your mentees and your students, 'Whether you're 22 or 92, you have to be ready for an opportunity' and this option came forward and I couldn't resist," Wong said.
Though he didn't choose to retire in the Upper Peninsula, he said the area has left an imprint on him that he will continue to use in California.
"The people here, the environment, is magical. There's nothing like it," Wong said. "Our students experience an exceptionally student-friendly community. People come here and the magic is, they say hi to you on the street. They care about you. It's a pretty good place."
In a Media Meet interview, which will air at 6:30 p.m. June 9 on Public TV 13, Wong said the people of the U.P. allowed him to be himself, saying it was the genuine nature of the community that he will miss the most.
"I think the genuineness, being myself, has been such a heartwarming thing as I go to the big city, as they say, there's a propensity for the intensity of the city to steal that humanness away from students," Wong said. "What the students have told me from San Francisco is, 'Oh my goodness, you're like a real person.' And I said, 'You know what, that's what I learned in the U.P. and what I learned at Northern.' You're genuineness is the best business card you could have, and I learned it here."
When asked what sort of a legacy he'd like to leave behind after eight years of service, he said he hopes he will be remembered for bolstering and maintaining a high quality student experience.
"Despite eight years of budget reductions, the quality of the student experience is still high. Students come here, and they go, 'Wow,'" Wong said. "We did our best to sustain that student experience and I feel pretty good that it has not been tainted or reduced or compromised in anyway."
During Wong's tenure at Northern, the university became the first in the country to run its own WiMAX network, was visited by former President George H.W. Bush and current President Barack Obama, and created its signature "Road Map to 2015" which focuses on improving the university in several key areas, including ramping up efforts for student involvement in the surrounding community.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.