In Memoriam: Kansas State Polytechnic honors former president, professor and campus innovator Tom Creech

By Julee Cobb

Creech-Memorial-squareBe positive. Believe in yourself. Think ahead to get ahead. Don’t look back lest you fall back. People are the reason for progress – love them, encourage them, believe in them. No matter how frail they seem to be or how many faults they have, think of their potential and help them achieve that.

When Rick Zajac started his journey as a professor of physics at Kansas State Polytechnic in 1996, the first lesson of his campus career ironically was taught to him instead of his students. Zajac walked into his new office in the Science Center to find the above message written on a blackboard in the space. The memo was honest and straightforward, almost simplistic in nature, yet contained advice so powerful it has stayed with Zajac to this day.

The counsel was that of Tom Creech ­– one of the founding fathers of the campus, the property’s third president and an engineering technology professor. Creech retired in 1996 and wanted to ensure the intrinsic values that had made the campus so successful were preserved and performed by the next generation. So Creech scribbled his 30 years worth of real life know-how into those six points, hoping his office successor would be inspired. Zajac got the message.

Creech has left many impressions on both past and present members of the Kansas State Polytechnic campus. Ask anyone about his contributions, and there is a consensus among the answers: Creech dedicated his life to education and was committed to investing in people – both students and faculty – to create the best learning experience possible.

“Tom always arranged his priorities to put our college at the top of the list,” said David Delker, a 1973 graduate of then Kansas Technical Institute, professor and associate dean emeritus. “His determination and enthusiasm laid the groundwork for a very successful institution and his influence continues to be with us today.”

On Nov. 15, a little more than 50 years after Creech helped establish the now Kansas State Polytechnic campus, he passed away at 84 years old. News of his death has had a lasting affect across the campus, in alumni circles and on members of the Salina community.

“I appreciate all that Tom accomplished for the stability of the college and the success of the graduates,” said Ken Barnard, a former student in the airframe and powerplant program at KTI and aviation department head during the K-State Salina years. “History is a valuable asset if one will only take the time to recognize who we are is in large part because of where we once were.”

To further understand Creech’s impact, it’s important to travel back to the mid 1960s. Creech, at that time, was a faculty member at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He and his colleague, Hank Neely, had been tasked with designing a degree program for a potential engineering technology college. Creech and Neely met with Col. Mike Scanlan who was commander at Schilling Air Force Base in Salina. The previous year the base had been ordered closed and both Creech and Neely were hoping to use some of their equipment and space for the engineering technology college.

Once the Kansas Legislature approved House Bill 1101, Creech and Neely’s months of hard work, research, dreaming and scheming came to fruition with the establishment of Schilling Institute on April 26, 1965. Creech was appointed as the campus’s inaugural director of academic affairs while Neely became the first president. Before the college even opened, Creech, along with other newly hired faculty and staff, put in sweat equity acting as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and painters to make the buildings and barracks suitable for students.

The campus would see additional transitions throughout its history, changing from Schilling Institute to Kansas Technical Institute in 1969; then to Kansas College of Technology in 1988; K-State Salina in 1991; and finally its current identity, Kansas State Polytechnic, this year. Though those name transformations have been necessary to the livelihood of the campus – staying relevant in an educational world that is always developing and undoubtedly competitive – the principle of providing hands-on learning and professional programs that students will immediately find success with in industry has remained the same. And this is a standard Creech initiated and held during his 30 years of service to the campus.

From Zajac, he tells of an old lab report he found that Tom had written to his students to help them better understand the process of experiments and their results; from Barnard, the explicit message that when Tom was president, he knew just how important active learning is to the aviation program, approving the purchase of essential lab equipment and six flyable TH-55 helicopters to improve the student experience; and from Larry Farmer, a 30-year electronics engineering professor and department head on the campus, a rave about Tom’s commitment to modernity, opening the Technology Center in 1985 – the property’s first new building since its educational inception.

In an interview with Creech last spring during a celebration of the campus’s fiftieth anniversary, Creech was adamant about his admiration for the property and how much content he felt about its trajectory over the years.

“I still think very highly of the campus and I’m interested in watching the process,” said Creech. “What K-State’s Salina campus is today is the vision of what we started with in 1965.”

With Creech’s passing, there is a sadness that comes knowing a pillar of the campus’s foundation is gone. Yet, when a legacy is built as strong, impactful and dynamic as Creech constructed his, the feeling of loss is only temporary, as his footprint will be etched into the success of Kansas State Polytechnic forever.

Reminisce about Tom Creech along with current and former members of the campus: 

About two or three weeks after I started as dean and CEO, Tom showed up in my office because he wanted to personally share the history of the campus with me. He even debunked the story floating around about how the president of Schilling Institute was decided. Even though the rumors said Tom had lost a coin toss to Hank Neely, Tom really didn’t want the foundational presidency. The real story was less “glamorous” than the rumor, so they both let it go!

Verna Fitzsimmons, Kansas State Polytechnic CEO and dean

I was a faculty member from 1982 until the year Tom retired. I will always remember Tom as a person who treated me as if he was my equal, even though he was president of the school. He was always friendly and helpful to those of us who worked at then Kansas Technical Institute and K-State Salina. I will miss his friendly nature.

Dave Ahlvers, former professor of arts, sciences and business

Tom was an integral part of my first experience with an accreditation evaluation team; in fact, I remember that day quite vividly. It was a bitterly cold Monday morning following a huge snowstorm. The Engineers’ Council for Professional Development (later known as ABET) had arrived in Salina the day before to meet with Kansas Technical Institute program coordinators and administrators the next morning. Even though the campus was essentially closed due to inclement weather, Tom insisted that we proceed with the accreditation meeting. Unfortunately, Tom’s car got stuck in the snow less than a block from his house, so I picked him up in my four-wheel drive truck and we plowed through the snow to get to campus. I don’t recall much else about that day, except that Tom was adamant that neither snow nor anything else would get in the way of our engineering technology programs’ successful accreditation!

David Delker, 1973 KTI graduate, professor and associate dean emeritus

Tom was a consummate tinkerer. I have a photo of the carefully crafted platform he built for his students on which to perform optical refraction. For Tom, it wasn’t enough that the platform is functional, he also had to make sure the wood that was used was properly stained and polished. Typical Tom.

Rick Zajac, Kansas State Polytechnic physics professor

Former President Creech was keystone in the effort to save KTI from closing. In his tenure, there was a concerted effort to close the campus. He led the effort and rallied the students and faculty to attend many sessions in the Kansas Legislature, pleading our cause to remain open. We produced top quality graduates to a deficient industry and our placement rate was 100 percent. The entire campus community personally knew each other and worked together to insure students were qualified, and the faculty personally made hiring contacts and recommendations for job placement and follow-ups. Tom Creech dedicated his life to the college and I am convinced he saved it from closing.   

Ken Barnard, KTI student and former aviation professor and department head

View Tom Creech’s obituary here.