As longest serving president of Minnesota State University, Moorhead, Roland Dille not only strengthened its reputation as a liberal arts college, he championed human rights.
In 1969, a year after he became president, Dille began recruiting minority students and faculty members. Despite threats, he never backed down.
Dille, of Moorhead, died May 26 after long battling kidney failure. He was 89 and had retired in 1994.
“To me, he was not only the face of our university, but the heart and soul,” said Larry Scott, retired sport information director.
Dille believed in the capacity of each person to learn and grow during his 31 years as teacher, dean and president, say those who knew him.
“He had an unshakable faith in students,” Scott said.
He made it a good place to work for faculty, showing support in handwritten notes that many still treasure, said retiree John Sherman, who taught English for more than 40 years.
During Dille’s tenure, enrollment more than doubled. Five buildings were built, including an arts center named after him. The library was expanded and land acquired for growth.
Dille had a clear view that Moorhead should be a traditional liberal arts college strong in humanities, arts, science and more, Sherman said. He said Dille built the arts, theater, literature, drama and music programs.
“And where there was a gap,” Sherman said, “he acted boldly and courageously.”
He pointed to Project E-Quality, which Dille launched with funding to bring students of color to Moorhead, angering a vociferous few who threatened him and his family and even spattered black paint on his car, along with a racial epithet demanding the project’s end.
“If his critics thought he would buckle under and give up his quest for this, they were wrong,” Scott said.
Ahead of his time, Dille also began the New Center for students who were nontraditional or had learning disabilities, Sherman said.
In 1969, amid student protests over the Vietnam War, Dille, a World War II veteran turned poet, planted a tree on the college mall as a symbol of his hope for peace.
“It is one of the ironies of my life that I have dug more foxholes than planted trees,” he told those looking on.
Born in 1924 on a farm outside Dassel, he’s featured in a new exhibit, “Roland Dille and the Dassel Story,” at Dassel History Center and Ergot Museum.
He loved to recall his evenings there, when he and other young men drifted from Frank Dwyer’s gas station to Matt Delong’s Coffee Cup Café to Oscar Lindquist’s Downstairs Cafe, savoring nickel hamburgers and dime malts.
“If you grow up in the Depression, like I did, you learn to work hard. You learn to trust people; that’s a quality of a small town,” Dille once told a college newspaper.
He earned a bachelor’s in English literature, summa cum laude, from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in 20th-century British literature.
He married Beth Hopeman of Moorhead in 1948 and began teaching at Dassel High School in 1949. From 1956 to 1963, he taught English at St. Olaf College in Northfield and at California Lutheran College. He became an English professor at Moorhead State College in 1963.
Dille often joked that he wanted to be buried where he could see the campus. He’s interred two blocks away, in Prairie Home Cemetery, near his and Beth’s longtime home.
In addition to his wife of 65 years, survivors include children Deborah, Martha, Sarah and Benjamin; 10 grandchildren; one great grandchild, and sister Elaine Nygren.
Services have been held.