Rhea and Pat took time out of their holiday schedule to talk about everything from their childhood in Kansas, meeting at Kansas State and having dinner with Russian Premier Gorbachev.
Dennis Schmidt – Thank you for getting together this afternoon to talk about K-State and yourselves. One of the most frequent question I hear from K-Staters when they meet for the first time is ‘Where did you grow up”. So let’s start there.
Pat Serpan – I was born in Hutchinson, Kansas and my family moved to Salina, Kansas when I was a toddler. When I was going to go into sixth grade we moved back to Hutchinson. I was in Hutchinson for junior high and high school and went to Kansas State from Hutchinson High.
Rhea Serpan – I represent the western part of the state, LaCrosse, Kansas, which is the county seat of Rush County, Kansas. I was born and raised there and went to K-State.
DS – Growing up in Kansas in the 1930’s do you have any memories of the Dust Bowl?
RS – I remember my parents talking about it, but the dust bowl was just about over when I was born. It ran from the late 1920’s through most of the 1930’s. I certainly remember my parents and grandparents talking about it.
DS – Their area was pretty much affected?
RS – Oh yes. That part of Kansas was pretty much in the middle of it. I remember them talking about having to put wet towels around the windows to keep the dust out and keep things clean. It would turn almost like nighttime during the middle of the day. Drifts of dirt and tumbleweeds filled up the fencerows so you couldn’t see the fences. It was a pretty grim time for the hardy people of western Kansas.
DS – Pat do you remember your parents talking about it?
PS – I remember them talking about it, but I am not sure they were as affected by the dust bowl as they were by the depression, which came right before it.
DS – How and where did you meet?
RS – We met at K-State. It just so happened that one of my pledge brothers at the fraternity I joined, Beta Theta Pi, was Mike Smith who just happened to have a twin sister named Pat. Mike also had an older brother Jim who was a junior when we were freshman and he was also in the same fraternity. Through them I was introduced to their sister. The rest they say is history (laughs).
PS – They picked him out for me. My brothers took care of me.
DS – What attracted both of you to attend K-State? What were your majors and why were you attracted to these majors?
RS – Growing up I was the first one from my family to go to K-State, except for my stepfather. My father was killed in a racing car when I was two years old so I don’t remember him. My brother was born about a week after my father was killed. After the war my mother remarried and so my stepfather was the only father I knew and he was wonderful to the family. He was a K-State grad in agriculture so there was that connection. Then in school I had a physics professor who was a K-State grad. I was interested in physics and science and that sort of thing and he said “where you need to go is to Kansas State”. The third thing was that I played basketball in high school and was semi-good (laughs). I was recruited to play at K-State by Tex Winter and Howie Shannon, however, I didn’t get a scholarship. So all of those things led me to go to K-State. I started in 1955 in Electrical Engineering.
PS – My older brother was already there and my dad went to K-State. I had two aunts who also attended K-State and my twin brother was going so that just drew me. I wanted to be with my brothers. I was enrolled as a physical education student because they didn’t have a physical therapy course. Because I wanted to be a physical therapist I had to transfer to KU my senior year for human anatomy and other medical classes. I then went on to the KU Medical Center. Now at Kansas State they offer pre-physical therapy.
DS – How many students were on campus?
RS – There were between 6,000 and 6,500 students.
PT – Tuition was $104 a semester.
DS – Do you have any children?
RS – We have a son and a daughter. Mike is a 1986 K-State grad. He majored in business and marketing.
PS – He attended K-State all the way from New Jersey. We lived in New Jersey and he was interviewed and accepted by several good schools back east, but he came to K-State and fell in love with how nice the people were. His comment was, “At K-State they feel honored that I’m looking into their school. On the east coast they said to me, I should feel honored that they were considering me”. That was a big difference to him.
RS - Our daughter Anne went to Washington University in St. Louis and graduated in business management.
PS – And we have five wonderful grandchildren.
DS – What are your fondest memories of being a student at K-State?
RS – There are several.
DS – Other than meeting Pat.
RS – (Laughs) that puts other things way down the list. I really enjoyed the men in the fraternity that I was in. It was a social and academic environment that really worked for me. I was in the acappella choir at K-State, the touring choir, for four years. I really enjoyed that as an extra curricular activity. I enjoyed the personal attention that many of the professors would give you in school. Dean Durland was the head of the College of Engineering at the time. I ended up as an intern working in the electrical engineering department grading papers before I was out of school so I got to know some of the faculty very well.
DS – Did you get to play much basketball for Coach Winters?
RS – I played part of my freshman year. Bob Boozer and Jack Parr were in my group. I was supposedly a center. I was 6’-5” and they were like 6’-8” to 6’-10”. One day Tex Winter lined us up underneath the backboard. Winter had a scale taped to the backboard and he wanted to see how high we could touch on the backboard from a standing jump.. Well, I had a really hard time hitting the backboard while Boozer was about three-quarters up the backboard I was thinking I am in deep trouble here. I don’t think I can be a guard or forward. About half-way through the year Tex called me into his office and said “Rhea, you know, you would make a great intramural basketball player”. (laughs). So that is what I did. I played a lot of basketball in college but it was all intramural ball.
DS – What about your K-State memories?
PS – I loved my sorority the Tri-Delt’s. My sister-in-law was also a Tri-Delt. She was married to my brother by the time I was in school. There were a lot of girls from Hutchinson that I admired a lot that had pledged Tri-Delt who were older than I was. They encouraged you to study. They didn’t encourage a lot of partying. That was good for me, a good influence. I also liked being at the same school as both of my brothers. I just thought the people were just so down to earth and friendly.
RS – One of our first experiences when we were freshman was that K-State decided to hold a mock political convention. It was a model of a normal political party convention at that time. Organized groups would get behind one candidate or the other. Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower were candidates. We had a ball through the whole process, the nomination process and demonstrations and all of the hoopla that goes with a political convention. It was the United Stater’s Party political convention. I think the convention nominated Adlai Stevenson. It was a lot of fun and our introduction into the political process. I don’t think they have ever done it since.
DS – The 1950’s was probably the height of the cold war with Russia? Were you in the service?
RS – At that time when you went to K-State all male students had to go through two years of ROTC – Reserve Officer Training Course. I chose to continue my second two years and was commissioned out of K-State. It cost me an extra semester to graduate because I was an electrical engineer and that was a pretty heavy load. I was assigned to artillery at Fort Sill and took the basic officer training course. I had a six-month active assignment and seven years of reserve duty. As it turned out I worked for a while in what they called rocket research at Fort Sill.
DS – So you were a rocket scientist?
RS – Yes (laughs). What we were doing was tracking all of the firings of a weapon called the Honest John rocket, which was an army ballistic missile with the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead. Anywhere in the world where it was fired we collected metrological data and put it into a computer. The computer was a Bendix rotary drum vacuum tube computer with paper tape input and output. Each firing allowed us to correct the firing tables so that the next time one was fired it could be aimed more accurately to hit the target. So I was an early rocket scientist, I guess.
DS – Pat what did you do during this six months?
PS – We were in Lawton, Oklahoma and I was the only physical therapist in town, so I had a great job. I made more money than he did (laughs). It was a great opportunity for me. I was young and had worked only three months. It was a real growing experience for someone as young as I was. I am very grateful that I had that opportunity. We moved around a lot and I was always able to get a job, which was great.
DS – After your Lawton and Fort Sill what occupation path did you both take?
RS – I had gone to work for AT&T right out of school as a management trainee. At that time jobs were fairly plentiful and everybody who had graduated had several job opportunities as did Pat and I. I chose AT&T because I liked their management trainee program. I started in Kansas City and they let me go to complete my active military service. After Fort Sill I came back to AT&T in Kansas City and worked for them for 34 years.
DS – Did you work all around the country?
RS – Yes. We started in Kansas City and shortly after that we were transferred to New Jersey and I went to work for Bell Laboratories in a training program that was basically a masters degree in engineering. I then worked in New York City for awhile, then back to Kansas City. All of those jobs were engineering kind of jobs. After that we were transferred to Dallas, Texas and I was the District Operations manager for northern Texas. I then took over the division that included AT&T operations in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. In 1972 we went back to Kansas City and in 1974 I became the chief engineer for the Western Region of AT&T. In 1976, we were transferred to Chicago and I worked for Western Electric Company, which was the manufacturing arm of the Bell System. I was the product line manager for Western Electric’s electronic switching systems, large central switching systems that made up the switching nodes for the nationwide long-distance network. At the time technology was moving from electrical mechanical to electronic so there was a lot going on. I worked for Western Electric for several years and then in 1978 we moved to New Jersey again (laughs) – for the second time. I went to work for the AT&T General Departments. For awhile I was the assistant to the president of AT&T, which was kind of cool as I got to carry his briefcase as he travelled around the country (laughs). I then was made an officer of the corporation and became the Vice President for Market Planning for a new subsidiary AT&T put together called AT&T International. Back in the ‘30’s AT&T decided to shed all of their international activity and focus on domestic universal service. It was in 1979 or 1980 that AT&T decided to get back into the international businesses. They chose to create a subsidiary that would focus on putting AT&T’s footprint back into the world. So that was an exciting time. Here’s a boy from Kansas responsible for international marketing which was kind of interesting (laughs). And then the Bell System was broken up. I ended up working for AT&T services and transferred out here to run operations for the western region for that part of AT&T. So that is how we ended out in California in 1985 right after divestiture. Eventually AT&T reorganized and eliminated regions so I went back into an international job. When I left AT&T I was Vice President of International Services Operations worldwide, located here. I convinced them that, since I had an international job, wherever I was was the center of the territory. That worked for awhile (laughs).
DS – Pat, as Rhea was required to move for his job and much did that impact your career?
PS – My profession allowed me to be pretty mobile. The good news was that I was always able to get a job, but when we moved from Kansas City to Illinois I got a job that I really didn’t like that much. Latter, I was offered a new job in this beautiful little hospital that was the main hospital in the town St. Charles. I came home and told Rhea and he said “well, we are moving”. I think that was the saddest job experience. I enjoyed all of my jobs and I felt very honored that I was able to get them. There was just always a demand, which was wonderful.
RS – You had to have a license for every state you worked.
PS – I was licensed in about six states at one time. Some states had reciprocity with other states, but I was never that lucky. So I had to take tests for each.
DS – Did you work in California?
RS – I didn’t work in California, but I was offered a job. By the time we moved out here I had gotten back into horses. I had ridden on and off all my life and I got back into riding and showing quarter horses. I remember once going to my neighbors asking them to take me to the emergency room because my horse had stepped on me and Rhea was out of town. I didn’t know if my foot was broken or not. The emergency room doctor asked me what I did when I wasn’t riding a horse and I told him I was a physical therapist. He offered me a job on the spot, but I felt the timing wasn’t right and turned him down.
DS – This must be awesome Rhea to have a spouse who is a physical therapist.
RS – I will tell you I am a very bad patient (laughs).
PS- When we were first married, before we even had children, Rhea got hurt probably playing basketball. He was just getting ready to take Explorer Boy Scouts on a canoe trip to Canada. So Rhea went to an orthopedic surgeon that I worked with at that time and he sent him down to the physical therapy department. He was my patient for about ten minutes and I turned him over to the supervisor. (Rhea laughs and said I was a bad patient)
DS – Are you involved with the equestrian program at K-State?
PS – They came out and talked to us but I was already involved with a pre-physical therapy scholarship. The opportunity came after we were doing the engineering and physical therapy scholarships. I am kind of sorry as I know the team is doing very well.
DS – What ways have you gotten involved with K-State since your graduation?
RS – We didn’t have much involvement for a number of years as we were starting a family and moving around. the first time we got back engaged in campus activities was when our son went to K-State. . I was invited by a friend to join the Engineering Advisory Council when Don Rathbone was the Dean of Engineering. He created this advisory council of alumni who were in industry in various occupations to provide advice and council to him and the college. Over the years it has blossomed into a very robust and important advisory council that carries on today. That was my first introduction back onto the campus. I did that for a number of years. That lead to an invitation to be considered for the Board of the Alumni Association. I was elected to the Board and eventually became the Chairman of the Board.. We are both Trustees of the Kansas State University Foundation. One thing led to another in terms of activity back on the campus. With the Foundation, Pat and I were involved in the Changing Lives campaign, which was a large campaign covering several years. We were the Western Region Co-Chairs. That got us into a connection with a lot of K-Staters out in the west as well as a lot of people at the campus.
DS – Did your philanthropy start with the Dean’s Council?
RS – We began to seriously consider giving back to K-State, not just time wise, but financially with the Changing Lives campaign. The involvement with the Advisory Council did increase our giving but our major consideration came about through the Changing Lives campaign. We were able to support some things that are really important to us. Before the campaign we had established a scholarship for engineering. During the Changing Lives campaign we were able to fund a Chair in engineering and a pre-physical therapy scholarship. We have done some other things too. We have helped the engineering department rebuild/refresh a lobby in the engineering complex as well as help build the alumni center. The campaign really got us thinking seriously about how we could give back in a way that would be helpful and consistent with what our interests were. K-State gave us so much in terms of not only an education that allowed us both to have successful careers, but allowed us to meet. (laughs) It was important for our son and other family members as well. K-State is a good deal. It’s a quality education, quality location, and quality infrastructure. It’s the best deal going. We wanted, if we could, to provide support.
DS – How involved is it to become a benefactor? Who did you contact at the University?
RS – The University contacted us (laughs). The development officer for the College of Engineering was Mitzi Richards working for the Foundation. We became good friends. Her job brought her to California once in awhile to talk to alumni. She is the one who really got us thinking about gifts larger than a few dollars every year. From there it developed into a more robust process. If you are giving funds you want to do so in a way that you are comfortable the funds will be well-used, well invested, well shepherded and used according to your wishes. There is a process, a contract, that you go through and sign to make sure that all of the ground rules are in place to the satisfaction of both parties. That’s all done through the Foundation. The Foundation is the one that manages all of the giving even though it may be to the College of Engineering or Arts & Sciences. It all goes through the Foundation. They are very good at that. They are also very, very good at managing the funds. We have been very satisfied with everything so far.
DS – Did your involvement start prior or after retirement?
RS – Prior to my retirement. I retired from AT&T in 1993. I didn’t actually quit working. I went to work with San Francisco Chamber of Commerce where I was the chief executive and president for eight years as a full time job. I retired from there in 2001. Since then I have been working hard but not getting paid (laughs). As the AT&T executive in San Francisco I was involved with the Chamber of Commerce. I was on the Chamber’s board and became Chairman at one point. I timed out and came back to do my job (at AT&T) and got this knock on the door one day and was told, “hey we’ve got this idea, why don’t you come to work for us”. I said, “no, I am gainfully employed and I like what I am doing”. The way it worked out I was eligible to retire from AT&T and there were rumors that I was destined to move back to New Jersey which I didn’t want to do. All things came together and I retired from AT&T and went to work for the Chamber as a paid executive. Different experience, but a great experience.
DS – Are you semi-retired or retired now?
RS – I am retired (laughs).
DS – You have golf courses in the neighborhood. Do you play golf?
RS – No, I play tennis a couple of times a week, as long as my knees will allow me. My basketball years come back and remind my knees.
DS – Do you still ride?
PS – Oh yes, I still ride. We brought two horses out here. Not the same ones that I have now but I’m still riding.
DS – Where do you ride?
PS – I ride out in Livermore and my horses are stabled there. It is very country. I also volunteer with special needs kids and horses. It is putting physical therapy together with horses and that’s very rewarding. I work with the Sonrise Equestrian Foundation in Castro Valley on Crow Canyon Road. We work with special needs kids and horses. We have regular horses and miniature horses. We take miniature horses to visit sick kids inside the Oakland Children’s Hospital and to George Mark Children’s Home in San Leandro, which is a place for terminally ill kids. We take the miniature horses into their rooms. It is very special for them. When we work with autistic kids you see kids talk who have not talked in a number of years. They won’t talk to us but they will talk to the horses.
DS – Do you get back to Manhattan very often?
RS – It varies. At least once a year. During the time I was on the alumni board we were back there four or five times a year. We had four board meetings plus many other meetings. I still own the family farm in western Kansas so we get back there once a year at least to check it out and talk to the tenant farmer who is managing/running it. We always manage to go around a football or basketball game. There is some fun involved too!
DS – Anything you would like to add?
PS – I can’t stress enough the warm atmosphere and friendliness (at K-State). I felt so at home. It wasn’t scary when you are going away from home for the first time. I think that’s how our son felt. He still keeps in touch with quite a few of his Beta friends. A couple of them are out here.
RS – I think often about how fate plays in a role how things evolve. Here I was a young boy with a single mother during World War II living with my grandparents, because we couldn’t afford anything else. Through God’s good graces she remarried and they were able to provide a college education for me. Through the education I got at K-State I ended up with a job and set of circumstances that took me all over the world, doing things that you would never imagine a poor farm kid from Kansas would do. One time I had responsibility for all AT&T’s submarine cable laying ships for instance. I didn’t know anything about cable ships (laughs). I had meetings with business leaders from around the world. I often marvel at the fact that all of these opportunities came together. When I was chairman of the board for the Chamber in San Francisco in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev was Premier of the Soviet Union and had come to the United States for the first time. His first occasion outside of Washington was a visit to San Francisco and we hosted he and his wife, Raisa. I was the master of ceremonies at a dinner and he was beside me. We had an interesting discussion. He invited us to visit him in Russia. In 1991 a group from the San Francisco Chamber went to Moscow to return the visit. You may remember this was when the iron curtain was falling and Gorbachev was taking the country from a socialist state to a republic. He had been kidnapped and had been taken to the Crimea and put under house arrest. Insurgents had control of the White House, which is their government building. The army had the place surrounded with tanks. This is when Yeltsin got up on the tanks and put down the coup. Shortly after that we showed up. We were in a hotel right across from the White House. The streets were still lined with tanks during our visit. Alexander Rutskoy, the vice president, was standing in for Gorbachev. Instead of meeting with Gorbachev we met with Rutskoy. He had been an air force officer during the Afghan war the Russians were involved with and had great ambitions of his own. We had brought a gift, a San Francisco cable car bell, to give to Gorbachev and so I gave it Rutskoy and said, “now this is for President Gorbachev. Be sure and see that he gets it” – right (laughs). Shortly after we left Gorbachev came back (to Moscow). In 1993 Rutskoy and some of his henchmen decided they wanted to take over the country. They actually occupied the White House and the army was brought in and they shelled their own government building. Rutskoy eventually surrendered, was arrested and spent a year in prison. I have no idea whether he still has the cable car bell with him (laughs). I’m pretty sure Gorbachev never saw it. Gorbachev later established the Gorbachev foundation in San Francisco and he has been back several times and on one of those occasions we met again.
DS – Thank you Pat and Rhea for a great finish to your story.