Faculty and former students at the University of St. Thomas are mourning the death of William Malevich, the longtime dean who challenged students to ask him about almost anything — and had a ready response when they did.
Malevich died July 14 at his home in Arizona from complications from a fall. He was 82.
Malevich's approachable demeanor as St. Thomas' first lay dean of students, from 1967 to 1993, made him a favorite of students — first when he set up a "Dean, Dean the Answer Machine" booth outside his office, and then in 1983 when he started writing an "Ask the Dean" feature in the campus bulletin. He wrote responses to 2,233 questions in the subsequent decade, even when students addressed him as Deano Supremo, Grumpy Old Man or O Holy Dean.
"Students wrote him about serious issues — alcoholism and abortion — as well as about the absence of onion rings in the cafeteria and the difficulties of the subjunctive tense in German. His answers mixed wisdom and wit. 'What is the meaning of life?' one student asked. His reply: 'If I really gave you the answer to that question, wouldn't it take the fun out of discovering the answer for yourself?' " wrote the late Richard Conklin in his book "125 Years: A Look at Interesting and Influential People in the History of St. Thomas."
Malevich grew up on Minnesota's Iron Range and his own "wayward" commitment to studies while an undergraduate at St. Thomas shaped his empathy for students later as dean, Conklin wrote. After earning a bachelor's degree in political science in 1955, and a master's degree in guidance counseling in 1963, Malevich was hired in 1965 to work in admissions and student counseling. Two years later, he was appointed dean of students.
"I partied more than I studied. Maybe that's why, when I became a dean, I tended to be forgiving of the freshman who got drunk once or twice," he told the Star Tribune in 1994. "I was less tolerant of seniors who got themselves into trouble. By then, they should have known better."
Father John Malone, a retired St. Thomas business professor and vice president, called Malevich a "substitute grandpa," in an obituary on the St. Thomas website. "Bill was a kid from the Iron Range who came to St. Thomas and was scared to death when he got here. He wasn't going to let that happen to students when he was dean."
Rick Kunkel, a 1980 St. Thomas graduate who teaches business ethics at the university, sent Malevich an annual birthday package of sunglasses, a bag of sand and a lei in appreciation for how the dean handled a situation in which Kunkel and his roommates trashed the basement of a student housing facility with sand for a luau party.
"He appreciated the inventiveness and originality of students," Kunkel said. "He was just … very thoughtful in working with young people who were trying to figure out their way through the world."
After retirement, Malevich was sued by a former student who accused him of an inappropriate relationship in the mid-1960s. The case was settled privately in 1995. The university maintained his innocence and continued to honor his name with an annual award for faculty or administrators demonstrating exemplary support for students and with a student leadership scholarship.
St. Thomas has lost perhaps its two most beloved figures of the past half-century in Malevich and the Rev. James Lavin, who was famous for his support and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for students in Ireland Hall, said Doug Hennes, a university spokesman. "They both were incredibly effective in their jobs because they always put one thing first: the welfare of our students."
Malevich is survived by his wife of 53 years, Penny, and his son, Steven, of West St. Paul. A visitation ceremony will take place at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, on the St. Paul campus, followed by a service at 10:30 a.m.