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Fred Wittmann to retire after nearly 50 years at UND

Longtime employee is closing his final chapter as director of ceremonies and university events.

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Fred Wittmann, director of ceremonies and university events, reacts as he's presented a commissioned sculpture of the Eternal Flame by local artist David Badman at a reception honoring Wittmann, who's retiring after nearly 50 years at UND.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – When Fred Wittmann, as a college freshman at UND, took a part-time job in the fall of 1973, little did he know it was the start of a career that would span nearly five decades at the university.

“When I came in ‘73 as a student, if somebody had said, 'well, you’ll be retiring from here roughly 50 years from now,' I’d have said, 'you’re reading the tea leaves wrong,'” he said with a chuckle.

Wittmann is retiring Jan. 3 as director of ceremonies and university events in UND’s Division of Marketing and Communications. Brooke Conlin, director of events for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, will step into his role Tuesday, Dec. 13. She’ll shadow him before and during UND’s winter commencement next week.

Wittmann has been at the helm of 130 commencement ceremonies, as well as UND’s 125 anniversary celebration and countless other events, including presidential inaugurations, building dedication events and the annual Founders Day banquet. For more than 20 years, he has organized and led the annual UND Faculty Bus Tour, introducing new faculty members and administrators to the state and its culture.

At a retirement reception Thursday, Dec. 8, UND President Andrew Armacost thanked Wittmann “for everything you’ve done for the university.”

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Armacost recalled that three years ago, on his visit as a candidate for the presidency, Wittmann was the first person Armacost and his wife, Kathy, met at the airport.

“He met us with a smile, a kind word,” Armacost said, noting Wittmann’s “warmth, compassion, friendship – and the kind, caring manner about him.”

“Fred has been a steady source of advice and wisdom,” Armacost said before presenting him with a replica of the UND Eternal Flame, crafted by local artist David Badman.

Among other speakers at the reception, Dawn Botsford shared insights based on 39 years working with Wittmann.

“He leaves a legacy of excellence,” she said.

Worked with various employees

Wittmann has worked with eight UND presidents and dozens of vice presidents, provosts and deans. Each president was distinct and different.

Over time, what has changed and has kept the job “challenging and interesting” is working with a wide variety of campus leaders and staff members to pull an event together, and “make it all work for the benefit of the students,” he said.

“And sometimes the most important person in that mix is the guy driving the truck that delivers the equipment you need.”

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Much of Wittmann’s work has been about celebration – whether it’s honoring the accomplishments of faculty or staff members, or students completing their academic degrees. His work has centered on “helping people create memories,” he said.

Wittmann credits much of his approach to Bob Boyd, former UND vice president for student and outreach services, with whom he worked for many years.

“He was very leadership-minded, very thoughtful,” Wittmann said. “I remember him saying – and I’m paraphrasing – we want to make sure that when people attend one of our events, that they know they were at a University of North Dakota event or were involved in a UND activity. It has continued to stick with me – the simplicity of it – but it was very powerful. It was that vision that was out there, saying 'you know, this is what we should shoot for.' And so that’s one of the underlying philosophies for all these years.

“It’s about, what did the participants feel when they left?”

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Fred Wittmann, director of ceremonies and university events, hangs out with Axl Duhamel, son of actor Josh Duhamel and Fergie, formerly of the Black Eyed Peas, in May 2019 at UND's commencement at the Alerus Center where Josh Duhamel received an honorary doctoral degree.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Started giving campus tours

Wittmann, who grew up on a farm near tiny Wheatland, North Dakota, came to UND as a graduate of Central Cass High School in Casselton, North Dakota. He was thinking about possibly going into medicine, he said.

His first job on campus included giving tours to potential students and their families, “and I gave a lot of them,” he remembered. “That first year, I probably gave close to almost 100 tours.”

He also met his wife, MaryLou, on one such tour when she visited the campus with her parents.

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At UND, Wittmann earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in counseling, and “somehow never left,” he said.

In 1978, he joined the Division of Continuing Education, working first as a conference coordinator and later as director of conferences and institutes, coordinating non-credit, continuing education events for various professional and other groups.

In 2000, he left that division to lead the planning of UND’s ceremonies and special events.

Wittmann has been honored for his service to UND, receiving the UND Meritorious Service Award in 2003 and the Ken and Toby Baker UND Proud Award in 2018.

It’s hard for him to pinpoint a particularly enjoyable aspect of his work, he said, but “probably the event I’m going to miss most is the Faculty Bus Tour,” during which new faculty and administrators tour the state before the start of the academic year, visiting landmarks and talking with residents.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed that,” he said. Last summer, he led his 23rd tour.

“Welcoming new people to the campus … hopping on a bus for three days, and showing off the state of North Dakota, it’s been a lot of fun and, I think, it’s been very impactful for them. I can’t help but think it has helped people feel comfortable in the state. And, who knows, maybe they’ve stuck around longer than if they hadn’t had that experience.”

Stepping into the role

Wittmann is pleased with the appointment of Brooke Conlin to succeed him as director of ceremonies and university events. His advice will be “fasten your seatbelt,” he said with a laugh, “and build on the relationships you already have on campus.

“Learn as much as you can,” he said, “and adapt, because there’s always going to be changes.”

Co-workers will miss Wittmann when he leaves UND, said Jill Novotny, assistant to the UND vice president for marketing and communications, who’s worked with Wittmann for about two decades. She describes him as “the ultimate professional.”

“He always knows how to communicate things professionally and tactfully,” a trait that colleagues particularly appreciate, Novotny said. “Some of us don’t have as much tact as he has.”

Novotny will miss Wittmann’s kindness, she said.

She and co-workers like to “give him a bad time. I’ll miss being able to tease him about things. He makes it fun to be here at work. He’s just always very upbeat.”

“We’re going to miss him greatly,” Novotny said. “He’s one of the UND treasures, I think, that people probably won’t realize until he’s gone, unfortunately. People appreciate what he does, but don’t realize what he does — that kind of thing.”

“I’m excited for him,” she said. “He’s put in a lot of time and effort, and he deserves a great retirement.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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