In 1946, a discouraged young man withdrew from college because he couldn’t afford the tuition. He approached Ottawa University with no money, but with determination to earn an education. OU offered him a job on the maintenance staff for 75¢ an hour. He accepted. “That opportunity changed my life,” says alumnus Bob Ohlsen ’52.
“It doesn’t sound like much now, but it was enough to keep me in school. Bob Bundy loaned me seven dollars to pay the rent on one room in a house where we lived with our toddler for a year and cooked on a hot plate. Bob Bundy had never met me before; he simply wrote my name on a piece of paper showing I owed the money. By the time I graduated, the school had loaned me more than $1000, and I never signed a note. They just trusted me. It felt like home.”
During his first year at OU, Ohlsen met Dr. Roy Browning, Sr., professor of education and psychology, who took the new student under his wing. “I had a learning disability and no money, but Dr. Browning had faith in me,” Ohlsen remembers. “He mentored me and got me my first teaching job. I’ll never forget him.”
That first job, middle school teacher and principal at Winchester Elementary School in Winchester, Kansas —with only sixty college hours to his credit and an annual salary of $1665—sealed Ohlsen’s love for helping others learn. After completing his undergraduate degree in education psychology, he launched a career in teaching and administration that spanned 42 years. His efforts included innovations in the areas of mobility training, audiology and visual impairment. “I was working in special education before the designation existed,” Ohlsen muses. “I was able to learn despite my disability, so I wanted these kids to know they could learn, too.” Ohlsen eventually earned a master’s in speech and audiology and education administration from Wichita State University and a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Kansas. The EdD included a designation for special education, the first of its kind awarded from the University of Kansas. In 1957, he was selected by the Wichita Board of Education as the state’s first director of special education, a post he held for seven years.
In 1963, Ohlsen’s career led him to Arkansas State University, where he served as a professor and as director of special education. There a freshman named Hugh Pace caught his attention. “Hugh was a good student and a fine young man. I knew he had a lot of potential,” Ohlsen remembers. Ohlsen spent the next several years pouring into his protégé the kind of faith and encouragement he had received at OU, and Pace eagerly drank it in.
Fifty years later, Pace describes Ohlsen as a mentor, colleague and friend. “I was the first in my farming family to finish high school—let alone attend college—so Bob’s encouragement was vital to me.” Pace completed his Bachelor of Science in Education in 1966, then moved to Wardell, Missouri, to take a teaching position at North Pemiscot County Schools. In the summer of 1967, he began working toward a master’s degree from the University of Arizona and needed to earn credit in the area of visual impairment, so he turned for advice to Ohlsen. “Bob helped me attain a grant to attend the University of Arizona to study special education for the visually handicapped. The following year he helped me with a second grant, and I was able to finish my degree in 1970.”
In 1966, Ohlsen had become Superintendent of the Kansas State School for the Blind (KSSB), and he recruited Pace to join his staff in 1967. They worked together at KSSB for two years and instituted practical improvements in the education and training of the school’s students. “Hugh was invaluable,” Ohlsen asserts. “He developed the clock-face method of serving food, and introduced cane travel, which allowed our students a measure of independence outside the school.” Pace took a year’s leave to complete his master’s degree at the University of Arizona, then returned to KSSB in 1970.
In 1972, when Ohlsen returned to Arkansas State, Pace stepped in as interim superintendent at KSSB for six months before moving to Tucson, where he earned a doctorate in school administration at the University of Arizona. After completing his degree in 1977, he taught at the University for two years before returning to KSSB, where he served as superintendent for four years.
Meanwhile, Ohlsen had joined the faculty of Kansas State University, and Pace named him to the Advisory Board of KSSB. During his years at Kansas State, Ohlsen was named Kansas Special Education Teacher of the Year (1986) and Kansas Special Education Administrator of the Year (1987). He retired from the University in 1988.
After his tenure at KSSB, Pace moved to Little Rock to become Superintendent of the Arkansas School for the Blind, where he served from 1982 to 1985. He was then Superintendent of the Tri-County Public School System for five years. In 1990, Pace returned to Arizona, where he served in the state’s Department of Education and taught as an adjunct professor at Northern Arizona University.
Though sometimes separated by several states, Bob Ohlsen and Hugh Pace have maintained a relationship of mutual friendship and respect for fifty years. In 2012, Pace joined the faculty of Ottawa University-Arizona as an adjunct professor of educational leadership and special education. There he has the opportunity to pass on to his students the same encouragement and passion he received from his mentor. “It’s a great way to carry on the love of learning,” says Pace. “I hope to provide the kind of support to my students that Bob provided to me.” For his part, Ohlsen is pleased that his protégé is teaching at OU. “It’s an indirect way of giving back to the school that gave me a chance. I’ll always appreciate OU, and now a part of me is back home there.”
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