Seniors at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology recalled Wednesday the unique relationship they had with their school president, who died unexpectedly earlier in the day.
Dr. Robert A. Wharton, 60, began his tenure at the engineering school in 2008, the same year those students began pursuing their degrees and dreams. He wore the traditional green freshman beanie with them that year and donned the senior hat with them this year.
Wharton met with them Saturday, only four days earlier, during the annual M Week homecoming breakfast at his home, easily remembering names and faces.
On Wednesday morning, five of those seniors studied at a table in the student union.
News of Wharton's death came as a shock.
Megan Mahowald, a senior electrical engineering student, said Wharton talked with the students Saturday about school traditions and the school's new soccer team. He was interested in the details of campus life, she said.
Hughes agreed. "It's what made him a good president."
They expressed sadness and shock at losing the man they called "one of the best presidents Mines has had."
"I've seen a lot of improvement since he's been here," said Codie Hughes, a senior studying chemical engineering.
Mines administration notified staff and students early Wednesday morning that Wharton had died. They also posted the information on the school's Facebook page, a post that quickly filled with condolences from alumni and students.
Christy Horn, vice president of university relations, said Wharton died from complications of treatment for neck cancer. Wharton was diagnosed with neck cancer in late 2011, requiring seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. In April, he announced he was cancer-free.
Horn said Wharton was cancer-free at the time of his death but declined to go into further details concerning his health.
The South Dakota Board of Regents appointed Mines provost Duane Hrncir as acting president Wednesday morning. Hrncir had served in a leadership role during Wharton's illness, Regents Director Jack Warner said.
Warner said the news of Wharton's death was particularly difficult because he was a "great friend" as well as a "great president."
"I'm feeling a personal loss as well as a professional one," Warner said. "It was certainly sudden and certainly unexpected."
Hrncir, too, struggled with his emotions Wednesday as he talked about Wharton's impact on Mines.
"He was a wonderful leader," Hrncir said.
Wharton's death comes the same week that Bloomberg, a financial news and data service, noted that School of Mines graduates earn more in salary than Harvard University graduates while paying much less in tuition. Wharton's tenure at Mines played a role in that accomplishment, said Katherine Johnson, president of the South Dakota Board of Regents.
"During his time, he inspired an expansion of the school in terms of physical structures and enrollment and research grants," she said. "He just inspired and grew this thinking about what the School of Mines really is and the potential of the School of Mines."
Wharton, the 18th president of the school, came from "big science," Johnson said. He was a visiting senior scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and served as vice president for the Institute of Management Studies in Reno, Nev. He participated in 11 expeditions to the Antarctic and was awarded the United States Antarctic Service Medal.
He arrived in Rapid City with big dreams for the university, she said.
"He came to South Dakota with the idea of what's out there, and he's translated this idea that it doesn't matter how small the entity is, you can play in the big things — big science, big engineering — he just knew it," she said.
While serving as president, Wharton worked closely in the development of the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake in Lead and was recently appointed to the board of directors of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, which oversees the lab, according to lab communications director Bill Harlan.
"Dr. Wharton was a tireless advocate for the lab," Harlan said. "He was a scientist himself and researcher, and he understood every aspect of research at the Sanford Lab. He had lots of ideas about how to strengthen our relationship. And everybody was really looking forward to working with him on the project. We're all deeply saddened by his death."
Wharton also developed new programs, including a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering and a master's program in robotics at the School of Mines. He expanded the amount of research the university does, increasing research funding threefold.
Hrncir said the strategic plan developed by Wharton was recently adopted, a plan that calls for increasing annual research awards for the university to $50 million. It also includes increasing student numbers to 4,000 and sustaining a job placement rate among graduates of at least 96 percent.
During his tenure at Mines, Wharton also created the Mines Medal Award, a national prize that honors engineers and scientists who are innovators and leaders in their fields. The next Mines Medal will be awarded on Thursday, Sept. 27, in Rapid City.
Johnson said the event will honor Wharton, because the prize was truly his baby.
"He thought of the idea and he actually built it from the ground up," she said. "The fact that it will be a nice event and well attended is a tribute to him."
By noon Wednesday, flags on the Mines campus were flying at half-staff in Wharton's honor. Gov. Dennis Daugaard called for flags at the capital to be flown at half-staff the day of the funeral, which has yet to be announced. An outdoor memorial tribute will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, at the Campus Quadrangle on campus.
Gina Betgen, a senior mechanical engineering student, sat with the other seniors in the student union Wednesday. Betgen said her father is a Mines alumnus. During her childhood, she visited the campus often. Much has changed over the years, but most of the change has happened in the past four years, she said. Betgen attributes that to Wharton's leadership, as do her classmates.
"He was just such a personable guy," Mahowald said. "He's done a lot for this school."