Remembering relationships built: Frank White retires from UND
After 34 years on the UND campus and six years at what was then called Lake Region Community College in Devils Lake, White retired in May, after a career that once saw the Stanley Cup make a surprise appearance in one of his classes.
GRAND FORKS – For UND sociology professor Frank White, teaching was all about building relationships. It was a central part of his philosophy of being an educator: if there was no relationship between himself and a student, then there was no connection. No connection meant all he could expect was a basic dialogue.
After 34 years on the UND campus and six years at what was then called Lake Region Community College in Devils Lake, White retired in May, after a career that once saw the Stanley Cup make a surprise appearance in one of his classes. He’s looking at putting that philosophy of relationship building to good use in a second career, perhaps continuing on as a motivational speaker, or speaking at high schools and middle schools about the effect of drug use on health.
No matter what he does, he’ll likely continue making connections along the way — connections that have helped students better understand themselves and their choice of academic pursuits.
“I learned real quickly to develop relationships,” White said. “I went to class early and I talked to the students. I got to know more about them than just their major. I stayed after class and visited with them. I became a mentor, I became a faculty adviser.”
That meant visiting with student groups of all types, from those in sororities and fraternities, to international students. As self-described “jock” in high school and college, he made inroads with athletes as well.
“Students would say things like ‘Frank likes the jocks’ or ‘Frank likes the Greek culture,’” he said. “Everybody thought that they were my favorite because I took the time to develop relationships and get to know more than just 200 people in a classroom.”
And those relationships helped change the course of a student’s time at UND more than once.
One memory White fondly recalled was when Mike Commodore, a former UND defenseman, brought the Stanley Cup to his sociology of sports class in 2006. Commodore called White and asked if he could visit. No one knew he’d turn up with the trophy. Commodore, a former student, wanted to let the students know how much he enjoyed his class. He invited White to help him celebrate winning the Stanley Cup, and to show it to Grand Forks.
“He invited me to every function, every banquet, as a thank you for a former teacher that he said made a difference,” White said. “I don't think many professors can say that.”
Another memory White recalled was a freshman from South Dakota some time ago, who was feeling overwhelmed with the large class sizes. The student wanted to go home, maybe attend another school or get a job – but he liked a class White was teaching. It was the only one he came to. The student wound up dropping his other courses.
White made a point to speak with him, and encourage him to get out and develop socially, and not just think about his time at UND as being in a classroom. White suggested he attend a hockey game, and the student became a big fan of the program at UND. White lost touch with the student over the course of a few semesters but he reappeared one day as a mechanical engineering graduate, and with his fiancee.
“He told everybody that it was that one person that made the impact on him and he decided to give (his education) a second chance,” White said. “I always thought that was a huge, huge deal.”
Mackenzie Leroux first met White when she was in high school in Valley City. White had gone there to give a motivational speech to the softball team. She graduated on May 10, with a degree in Sociology – she thought she wanted to be a lawyer, and even took the LSAT. After taking White’s courses, she found a different path, and now wants to enter a graduate clinical psychology program focusing on prison psychology.
White asked Leroux to give a guest lecture in his popular class “Drugs and Society,” after she finished taking the class herself. She did, and went on to work as a teaching assistant for the class for a few semesters.
“(White) sat in the audience and took notes and everything, and that's when I ultimately made the decision that I wanted to do something more hands-on with people,” she said.
White is well-known for the gregarious manner he used to deliver his lectures. He’d move around the lecture bowl, arms waving and with a rapid-fire, bright-eyed delivery of the subject material. Leroux recalled that sometimes White would get ahead of himself and have to take a moment to recall where he was in a lecture.
“I think my favorite thing was when he would be jumping up and down telling the story, and then all of a sudden he’d need to pause because he got so caught up in the moment that he had no clue what he was talking about anymore,” Leroux laughed. “Then he’d just bounce right back into it.”
White will continue speaking at high schools and middle schools wherever he gets invited. He said he has spoken “all over” the place, including at about half of the high schools in the state, as well as high schools in Alaska and Seattle. He’s getting into speaking at middle schools now as well, and has an upcoming date at Schroeder Middle School in Grand forks, to speak about motivation, academics and character issues.
Usually he speaks about vaping, binge drinking and painkillers like fentanyl. He doesn’t use scare tactics – those don’t work, he said. He speaks about the effects of drugs on the still-developing organs of younger people. That means he needs to be on his game, up on the latest research and sincere in his delivery.
“If you're up on yourself and you're genuine, they’ll visit with you, you can start a dialogue,” White said. “If you're going to talk one-way, or the data or scare tactics, you lose them right away.”
And there are other possibilities for a second career. He said he could do recruiting for UND or working with alumni groups. He may even get in some part-time or volunteer coaching. After 40 years in higher education, White just knows it’s time for a change.
“I tell everybody I could keep on teaching and I'm not burnt out or anything,” he said. “I'm still revving to go but I'm just ready for a change and do something different.”