SOU alumnus Daniel Breaux

Alumnus Daniel Breaux: Love at first sight

SOU graduate Daniel Breaux (‘14) says the school’s character-driven athletics philosophy stays with him every day, and he applies those values in his career as a police officer in Berkeley, California, as well as in his personal life.

Breaux came to SOU for football and its well-regarded criminal justice program.

“I wanted a school and a team that reflected my own values,” he said. “SOU and the athletic department did just that. When I visited the campus and met the athletic department staff and coaches, it was love at first sight.”

Breaux says he was particularly impressed with Athletic Director Matt Sayre and the late Craig Howard, who was then SOU’s head football coach, and their shared vision for the football program.

“Coach Howard said from the beginning that he was there to develop men who would become better husbands, fathers, employees and citizens of the world,” Breaux said. “Along the way, he’d help us become better players and win championships.

“I knew I was in the right place. It’s not just about winning games, it’s about academics, our school and our community.”

With encouragement from the coaching staff, Breaux dove into college life, serving in student government as an athletics senator, working with the planning committee for the new recreation center, helping to develop the Raider Weekend of Service and even volunteering at the local humane society.

“In student government, I learned whole new aspects of the university,” he said. “I learned about the work of servant leadership, and I developed an entirely new view about my role as a student and a contributor to the community.”

Breaux did all of this while winning accolades as a defensive end on the 2014 National Championship football team and managing to graduate with honors two terms early.

Howard was an integral part of his college life, Breaux says.

“I remember whenever the football team went to an event, Coach Howard would tell us to leave the room better than we found it,” he said. “I know sometimes he literally meant for us to clean up our garbage before we left, but I also took it as something to be applied to everyday life.

“Now I do the same with police work. I want to leave my community better and have a positive effect on the world around me.”

Reposted from the Spring 2016 issue of The Raider, SOU’s Alumni Association magazine

Zappos-Fred Mossler-SOU alum

SOU and Zappos alumnus Fred Mossler: Big shoes to fill

The first sentence in a Wikipedia entry for Fred Mossler includes the terms “business executive,” “fashion guru” and “philanthropist.” He has also been called a customer experience expert, digital visionary and serial entrepreneur.

But it is Mossler’s humble roots in rural California that keep this wildly successful “original shoe guy” of grounded.

Mossler was by all accounts a typical college student. He attended classes and worked in a local shoe store. When he graduated from SOU in 1990, Mossler moved to Seattle and began working at Nordstrom, where he learned the art of customer service and nurtured his penchant for fashion. From Seattle, Mossler moved to San Francisco, where he became a merchandise buyer for the company.

Mossler was approached by founder Nick Swinmurn in 1999 to join a budding venture. Swinmurn had secured enough capital to launch one of the nation’s first online shoe retailers, but he needed someone with fashion sensibility and a proven background in customer service. That was Fred Mossler.

Although the name didn’t last, the company made an important impact on the online retail industry. was replaced by the name within several months of the launch so the company would have the flexibility to sell more than shoes.

First-year sales were minimal, but sales in 2000 reached $1.6 million. By 2009, when it was acquired by Amazon, had more than $1 billion in sales.

As head of the day-to-day operations at the company, Mossler was at the epicenter. His assignments during 17 years with the company included merchandising, logistics and customer care. He also drove great innovation that included many groundbreaking e-commerce and customer experience moves, such as responsive, highly-personal service and free returns that set a new standard in the e-commerce industry.

At Zappos, Mossler helped build the company’s culture into a competitive differentiator. The 4 C’s: Culture, Clothing, Customer Service and Community were the foundation of a quality experience for all employees and customers.

Zappos made its debut on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list in 2009, making the list again in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Much of the reason for Zappos’ appearance on the Fortune list was an unrelenting focus on building a company culture that valued its employees and their lives.

“My whole focus was to help bring people in at entry levels and help them develop skills that made them more valuable employees and more valuable people in their communities and in the world,” Mossler said. “I’ve tried to do that in all my work, and it was at SOU that I realized that was something I really loved to do.”

Mossler credits SOU with giving him a strong academic foundation and the confidence to follow his business instincts and dive into new ventures.

“My time at SOU absolutely helped shape my career path,” he said. “SOU gave me the confidence to pursue a career in the business world, and my experience as an RA in the residence halls taught me some valuable lessons in terms of managing people.

“I’ve built my business career on management, and a lot of the skills I apply in management I learned as a residence hall director.”

Mossler stepped away from Zappos in 2016 to focus on other entrepreneurial and philanthropic ventures. Along with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, Mossler is setting out to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. And he has been a major player in producing the Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival, which brings music, culinary and art into the revitalized downtown area each year.

Additionally, Mossler and a former Zappos executive have launched an upscale, après ski-inspired shoe brand called Ross & Snow. Mossler also produced the 2018 film “Viena and the Fantomes” featuring Dakota Fanning.

But perhaps Mossler’s most intriguing venture is that of restaurateur. Mossler and several partners opened Nacho Daddy in Las Vegas in 2010. With four locations, Nacho Daddy has its signature scorpion shot, but it does something even more unique. It donates a portion of every entre purchased to a child in need.

Since 2016, Nacho Daddy has contributed some 250,000 meals through Three Square, Southern Nevada’s only food bank.

Mossler’s philanthropic work extends to the Goodie Two Shoes Foundation, where he is an honorary director. Goodie Two Shoes provides children in crisis with new shoes and socks, and other essential items to ensure good health and positive development.

Looking back, Mossler said that a strong sense of community led to his active involvement while on the SOU campus. In addition to his residence hall work, he played intramural sports and helped organize campus fundraisers.

“My advice to students is to get involved,” he said. “SOU provides a great entrepreneurial environment. It gives students freedom to create and learn and pursue their interests.

“I was deeply involved in campus life and those experiences were priceless.”

Reposted from the Fall 2018 issue of The Raider, SOU’s Alumni Association magazine


At SOU, athletic success is driven by character

The old adage that sports build character isn’t necessarily true, according to SOU Athletic Director Matt Sayre.

“There are studies that show the longer someone is involved in organized sports, the lower they score on ethical tests, unless you purposely teach character values,” Sayre said.

Since becoming athletic director in 2010, Sayre and his coaches have made the topic a major focus of the program, and the results on and off the field have been notable.

“I thought character-driven athletics would be the key to our success, and it is,” Sayre said.

SOU’s character-driven athletics program strives for balance in sports, classrooms and the community, admitting high-achieving students with strong values, and intentionally teaching character within the context of sports.

“We’re not beating our students over the head with the idea of character values,” said Bobby Heiken, SOU’s associate athletic director. “It’s in the coaches we’re hiring and the students we’re recruiting, the way we coach, the way we behave, and the behaviors we encourage.”

SOU athletics is currently on a run of successes on the playing fields and in the classroom that goes unmatched at SOU. The Raider football team played in back-to-back national championships, the women’s basketball team has played in the national championship, and men’s basketball, volleyball, wrestling, cross country and track and field are fixtures at the national championships.

Those winning performances put SOU sixth in the NAIA Director’s Cup rankings of the top athletic departments in the nation following the 2014-15 year – the university’s best-ever finish. And SOU was No. 1 in the country following strong showings by its fall sports teams this academic year, and is poised for another Top 10 finish.

“We’re redefining what it means to be an athlete here,” said Sayre, who was named the Cascade Conference Athletic Director of the Year following the 2014-15 season. “All the coaches are very serious about character-driven athletics, and it has made our department a really positive place.”

Heiken added that the focus on character in the athletic programs has benefited the entire university.

“It’s exactly what you want in a college,” he said. “The student-athletes live in the dorms and in the community. They participate, and they work hard. These students are coming out as leaders in the community and anywhere they go in the world.”

SOU belongs to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which focuses on and tracks five core values for all of its schools: integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership, which involves working for the greater good. Sayre said the first step is to find students who already embody those core values.

“We really target the academically high-achieving students and those who buy into those core values,” he said. “With these student-athletes, there aren’t as many problems off the field or with the team, and we win games. Plus, they’re more fun to coach.”

Sayre said he is most proud of the response he gets from teachers and community members about the athletes.

“I love hearing people tell me what good, respectful men and women are on our teams,” he said. “They represent SOU and the Rogue Valley in positive ways, and we’re all so proud of them.”

Balancing the highly competitive nature of college sports with a strong focus on character isn’t as hard as one might think.

“It is all connected,” Sayre said. “We find that our students do better in class, on teams, in the community and life. Our athletes’ retention and graduation rates are higher than average, as well.

“Winning games is a side effect of the values, academic work and service learning they’re embracing.”

Heiken added that the strength of SOU’s athletic teams, and the athletes’ growing reputation as strong performers and students, are attracting more students of the same caliber.

“We’re bringing in good students, and we’re turning out great students, not just great athletes,” Heiken said. “So much has changed over the years, and I’m really proud of where SOU is in terms of athletics right now. The fact that we’re able to win and be competitive across the board is an impressive thing.”

Reposted and updated from the Spring 2016 issue of The Raider, the SOU Alumni Association magazine


SOU’s 2018 grads still have professional development offer on the table

The 1,100 SOU graduates who received degrees last June still have more than a year and a half to take the university up on its offer of a free professional development course to help establish or advance their careers.

A handful of last year’s degree recipients have enrolled in or registered for the non-credit courses that were offered by President Linda Schott as a surprise at last June’s commencement ceremony. It was anticipated that enrollment in the courses would begin to swell about six months to a year later.

The gift of $125 toward a professional development class for each graduate, within two years of graduation, has a total potential value of about $140,000.

President Schott described the offer as an effort by the university to make good on its mission of  being an educational provider of choice for learners throughout their lives.

Examples of upcoming seminars or workshops available under the offer are “Thriving in the Midst of Change,” which helps people cope with and flourish in changing environments; “Decision-Making Groups,” aimed at making participants more effective as group leaders or members; “Effective Continuous Quality Improvement,” a course that examines the common components of all quality improvement processes; “Project Management Fundamentals,” which provides the tools necessary for managing involved projects; and “Presentation Skills for Professionals,” which provides hands-on experience in creating and delivering engaging presentations.

All of the courses are presented at the RCC-SOU Higher Education Center in Medford. The cost varies by course, but most are in the range of the $125 offer.

Those who have questions or would like to register for a professional development course can email or call (541) 552-8150.

SOU-Adams-IDW Publishing

SOU alumnus serious about his comics venture, IDW Publishing

Perhaps it was his job in the SOU bookstore that led Ted Adams (’90) to the role of publisher and CEO of IDW Publishing and IDW Media Holdings.

“It was the best experience,” Adams said. “I got to interact with students and read books on break. Having access to all those books was fun for me.”

Today, Adams is surrounded by books – comic books – on the grandest of scales. IDW, which Adams cofounded in 1999, is one of the largest comic book publishers in the United States. The multiple award-winning company fills a unique niche in the publishing world.

“Instead of competing with the likes of Marvel comics in the superhero genre, we specialize in taking existing entertainment brands and turning them into comic books,” Adams said. “We’ve done this for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony and Transformers.”

Adams said he was always interested in entrepreneurship. His father, Brady Adams, was a prominent Grants Pass businessman and president of the Oregon Senate.

“I grew up in that environment, and knew from an early age that I wanted to be a business owner,” he said.

Adams said SOU’s small class sizes played a big part in helping him focus on his educational goals.

“Southern Oregon really worked for me. I had the chance to get to know my classmates, and the professors were accessible,” he said. “I feel like I got a lot out of it. I was always impressed with the faculty. They were high-caliber professionals who had also been CEOs or worked in business.”

Starting a business has its ups and downs, but Adams has found his stride. “It seems cliché, but hard work really pays off,” he said. “That is what I believe and what I tell my son. You get out of life what you put into it.

“When I was a student at Southern Oregon, I decided I was going to work hard. I got a good education because of it.”

In addition to comic book publishing, IDW works with writers and artists to publish original works. One such work, “30 Days of Night,” led to a film version in 2007. Since then, IDW has expanded into media holdings, games and merchandise, with over 200 regular employees and 250 freelancers.

There is also a three-year-old entertainment branch to fund, develop and produce television series based on IDW books. Its TV series, “Wynonna Earp,” currently airs on the SyFy channel.

Last year, IDW opened the San Diego Comic Art Gallery to showcase comic books and graphic arts. The gallery, which is designed to educate and engage the community, also offers studio space for artists in residence.

“It is the only such gallery on the West Coast, and it’s our company’s way of giving back to the community and sharing what we do,” Adams said.


SOU alumna to offer Friday Science Seminar on zebrafish study

SOU alumna and doctoral candidate Sarah Stednitz will offer a lecture from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Friday that examines the social interactions of zebrafish and their implications on autism research and other deficits in humans’ social behavior.

The Friday Science Seminar event will be in the Science Building Auditorium (Room 151). The lecture is free and refreshments will be provided by SOU’s STEM Division.

Originally from Morro Bay, California, Stednitz was the recipient of the Ruhl Learning Fellowship and graduated from SOU in 2011. She earned her master’s degree at Humboldt State University and is currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Oregon.

Stednitz’s findings could be instrumental in furthering research on schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders. She has been studying how zebrafish behave in various social situations. The much-researched fish are genetically modifiable and show elaborate social patterns both in the laboratory and in the wild.

Zebrafish use each other to copy motions, and use other socially active fish to begin social orienting. Stednitz’s work shows that a non-engaged fish will not trigger social interactions with a normal fish. The mutated genes in the zebrafish may be similar to mutated genes in humans, which could mean the fish are essentially autistic.

Stednitz’s research is far from complete, however. Multiple questions still need to be answered about similarities and differences in the brains of zebrafish and humans.

“We leveraged modern neuroscience tools to address these questions, providing a foundation to understand how social cognition may be disrupted across species,” Stednitz said.

SOU’s Friday Science Seminar program offers presentations each week on topics ranging from biology to computer science to chemistry.

Story by Bryn Mosier, SOU Marketing and Communications intern

SOU-Taylor Mullaney-dentist

Taylor Mullaney: A dentist’s art and science

The mouth is a window into the health of the body. According to the American Dental Association, it can foreshadow diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and immune disorders. When a dentist peers into the mouth, he or she can see signs of nutritional deficiencies or general infection, often the first symptoms of serious medical conditions.

Being a dentist is part science and part art. It combines a strong scientific background with creativity. At its core is the study, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of diseases, disorders and conditions of the mouth, jaw and facial area.

But there is more. Dentists can improve a patient’s appearance, promote healthy living and serve their communities in important ways.

Dentistry is a calling for Taylor Mullaney (’17), and he believes his strong science education at SOU gave him the background he needs to be successful.

“The science program is not very big, but it is a really strong department, and it does a great job preparing students for whatever field they plan to go into,” said Mullaney, who is on track to graduate with a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) from Oregon Health & Science University in 2021.

Mullaney credits SOU with helping to guide his career path and nurture his sense of community.

“When I started at SOU, I didn’t understand what I was getting into,” he said. “From helping me select classes to the invaluable hands-on instruction and one-on-one time, the science department staff and faculty guided me from a confused freshman to a focused scientific mind. They influenced how I learn and how I will provide care throughout my career.”

Initially, Mullaney chose SOU for convenience.

“I grew up in Southern Oregon, and it was the best option financially,” he said. “But when I actually started at SOU, I realized it was the best choice for me and my interests.”

Mullaney was inspired to pursue a career in dentistry by experiences with his hometown dentist.

“When I was in high school, I built a relationship with my dentist, and later he became my mentor,” he said. “I fell in love with the work he did and the difference that he made in people’s lives. I decided I wanted to do the same work.”

While at SOU, Mullaney received the Rogue Valley Physician Service Scholarship and is now an OHSU scholarship recipient for the Healthy Oregon Initiative. Mullaney plans to focus on rural health, ensuring that all Oregonians have access to high quality dental care.

Although Mullaney thought he knew what to expect when he set foot on campus, SOU was full of surprises. “I didn’t realize how close-knit and small it was before I started, and it turned out to be one of my favorite things about the school,” he said.

At SOU, Mullaney found a strong culture of mentorship that helped him thrive.

“All my professors were pretty pivotal, but my biggest mentor was Greg Miller, who taught biochemistry,” he said. “From day one at my orientation, he sat me down and helped me figure out what classes I needed. We sparked a relationship that I would say will last my whole life.”

As he pursues his DMD degree and looks toward his future, Mullaney continues to draw upon the life lessons he gained at SOU.

“In my second year, I was really struggling and I failed an organic chemistry class, but I decided that I owed it to myself and my teachers to try it again,” he said. “The next year, I took it again and by the end of the class I was asked to be an organic chemistry mentor for the incoming students. It was a huge honor, and I was so proud to have gone from failing the class to doing well enough to teach it to incoming students.”

Reposted from the Spring 2018 issue of The Raider, the magazine of the SOU Alumni Association

SOU-Gini Linder Oregon Supreme Court justice

Compelling case: Linder’s historic legal journey begins at SOU

SOU alumna Virginia Linder (’75), who retired as an Oregon Supreme Court justice in 2016, says that being an undergraduate at what was then Southern Oregon State College in the 1970s was an ideal time for her.

“It was the civil rights period, the beginning of the women’s rights movement,” she says. “I and most of my generation of lawyers were heavily influenced by that; Southern Oregon State College was right there in the thick of it.”

Linder came from the Sacramento area and chose SOSC because it reflected her love of the outdoors, and Oregon had a reputation for being environmentally aware.

“I had planned to visit other Oregon colleges, but stopped at SOSC,” she says. “I liked the small college atmosphere and the town. It was in a beautiful setting and just right for me.”

A political science major with plans to get a teaching credential, Linder says that law was always in the back of her mind.

“I came from a long line of teachers, and teaching was always in my blood. Being a lawyer was more of a gleam in my eye at first,” she says.

The turning point in her career path came when, during her studies, she fell in with a group of pre-law students.

“I was the only woman, and the experience with those guys who were planning to go to law school became really reinforcing for me,” she says. “They created a campus political party, created a platform, and invited me to run for student senate. That got me involved with student government. It was very enriching.”

Linder says another appeal of SOSC was the speakers who came to campus.

“So many interesting people came and spoke with us,” she says. “Students could talk about issues and meet real people. SOSC offered the whole marketplace of ideas that college is supposed to be.”

One such person Linder met was then-Senator (later, Justice) Betty Roberts who was running for governor at the time.

“I got to speak with her and shake her hand. I never would have imagined having a career track in which she was such an icon,” Linder says.

Justice Roberts was the first woman appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court and a trail blazer in the state. When she first met Roberts at SOSC, Linder had no idea that Roberts would become a friend and mentor – or that nearly 25 years after Roberts’ appointment, Linder would also serve on Oregon’s Supreme Court.

After graduating SOSC, Linder attended Willamette Law School and clerked for the Oregon attorney general’s office. She later joined the Appellate Division and then took on the role as assistant solicitor general. In 1986, she was appointed Oregon solicitor general. Linder was the first woman to hold that position and served in that office for longer than anyone else in state history.

In that capacity, she was the administrator and chief counsel of the Appellate Division of the Oregon Department of Justice, representing the state in a variety of complex appeals. Linder was also directly and actively involved on the state’s behalf in all matters before the U.S. Supreme Court and was the first woman to argue a case on Oregon’s behalf in the United States Supreme Court (which she won, by the way).

Linder’s strong legal work, integrity and commitment to service led to an appointment in 1997 to the Oregon Court of Appeals by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. In 2006, she became the first woman in the history of the state to be elected to the Oregon Supreme Court. It was against two men who outspent her by more than three to one.

“No woman had run and gotten on the court by election,” she says. “My election was perceived as having knocked another hole in the glass ceiling.”

Linder says the election was very tight, and she was happily surprised at the outcome.

“I remember waking up the morning after the election and Googling my name to see updated election returns,” she says. “The first thing that popped up was a Wikipedia page about me and the fact of my election to the Oregon Supreme Court. It sounded like history.”

Reprinted from the Fall 2016 issue of The Raider, SOU’s alumni magazine

SOU-Brook Colley McNair graduate

McNair program changed the life of SOU faculty member and alumna

Mention the name Brook Colley (’07) around the SOU campus and students reply with delight, quickly sharing stories of her warmth, approachability and whip-smart lectures.

After graduating SOU with degrees in sociology and political science, Colley attended the University of California-Davis, where she received her doctorate in Native American Studies. She returned to SOU in fall 2015 as a fully minted assistant professor.

Colley says the McNair Program at SOU changed the course of her life.

“I never thought I would go to college, then when I was here at college, I thought at best I’d get a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “Even though both my parents have graduate degrees, I had other challenges that made it seem unlikely that I would pursue an advanced degree.”

The beginning of a journey
While at SOU, one of Colley’s instructors noticed her academic curiosity and suggested she apply to the McNair Program.

“We talked about Ronald E. McNair,” Colley said. “I remember being in first or second grade and watching the Challenger incident happen. When I learned more about McNair, I was inspired by him, by the fact that he did more than forward his own professional development. He also spoke to others and asked for advocacy and support from the social institutions themselves in order to bring everyone up. That kind of community responsibility was already part of my ethics, but the McNair Program gave me a concrete way to apply this thinking to my education and career.”

Colley was accepted into the McNair Program and started in 2006.

“I came in with a great cohort of students; we had a lot of social justice-oriented community advocates in our group,” she said. “We learned about everything from how to dress for a university interview to how to ask for strong letters of recommendation.

“We had this terrific group of mentors who supported us on every front. I learned so much, and I use that knowledge even now as a teacher and mentor.”

Colley said the McNair Program makes moving through the unfamiliar landscape of universities somewhat easier. “McNair helps you recognize your own potential and all the ways you can negotiate the best path to the future you want,” she said.

McNair program paves path for doctoral candidates
“Our McNair scholars are an amazing group of students,” said Dee Southard, Ph.D., the director of SOU’s Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. “They go on to Ivy League schools, they win national awards, and they give back to their communities. It’s a joy working with these students.”

The McNair Program is a federal TRIO program funded at 151 institutions across the United States and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Department of Education. The program, Southard said, offers a pathway to increase the number of doctorate holders from groups who are in financial need, or who are traditionally underrepresented in graduate schools.

“McNair graduates are an example of what people can achieve when given the opportunity,” she said.

Eligible students who enter the program are given the academic support they need to enter graduate programs in their chosen discipline. The success rate of McNair scholars is impressive.

“Generally, half the people who get into a Ph.D. program will drop out,” Southard said. “But McNair scholars who are admitted into a doctoral program are significantly more likely to complete a Ph.D.”

The program is named for astronaut Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D., who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. McNair was an African-American scientist nationally recognized for his work in the field of laser physics. Growing up in segregated South Carolina, he overcame a childhood of crushing poverty and discrimination to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“McNair was the second African-American astronaut in space, and he orbited the planet 122 times,” Southard said. “He was very dedicated to encouraging young people to pursue higher education.”

Southard and faculty mentors work to prepare qualified undergraduates for entrance into Ph.D. programs in their chosen fields of study. They receive GRE preparation, study research methods and learn how to write research proposals. By the end of the program, students are motivated, independent researchers with work published in the program’s scholarly journal.

“We encourage them to apply to outside summer research internships, and they often get what they go after,” Southard said.

The support and preparation pays off for the students.

“A majority of our students are accepted on their first application to graduate school,” Southard said. “When they receive those graduate school offers it makes an indescribable difference in their lives. It’s a joy.”

Over the past decade, SOU’s McNair scholars have had great success. Ninety percent have either completed a graduate degree or are currently attending a graduate-level program.

“I’m so proud of our graduates,” Southard said. “Right now we have 44 McNair alumni in graduate programs, and 59 graduate degrees completed by our alumni.”

A bulletin board in the McNair office is filled with postcards from McNair graduates studying or working nationally and internationally. Southard points out cards from Washington, D.C., Hawaii, China, and Australia.

“One of the things I enjoy as a McNair director is that I stay in touch with these students, and that is very rewarding,” Southard said.

Reprinted from the Spring 2016 issue of The Raider, SOU’s alumni magazine

SOU Michael Finley Fishing

SOU Alum: Michael Finley’s national parks balancing act

Michael Finley was praised on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives when he retired in 2001 after more than 32 years with the National Park Service.

California Congressman Jerry Lewis lauded Finley for his dynamic leadership of three of the nation’s largest national parks – Yosemite, Yellowstone and Everglades. Lewis identified Finley’s work with state and local governments, oversight of significant research projects and his international reputation as a conservation expert as exceptional.

For Finley, it was the end of a career that began at Southern Oregon University.

Finley grew up in a Medford family that enjoyed hunting and fishing, as well as music and the arts. He attended SOU as a biology major and planned to become a dentist. He remembers his education as rigorous but caring.

“Small classes, field trips, brown bag lunches and informal coffee discussions contributed to a very rewarding experience for me,” Finley said.

During summer months, Finley worked in a hotshot crew with the U.S. Forest Service, and by the time he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1970, he had discovered that his passion was in the outdoors and not a dental office.

Finley became a park ranger in 1971 at Big Bend National Park in Texas. He remembers the wide-open spaces of the desert and his friendly neighbors in nearby Mexico. But his time in Texas was brief, as he was moved to National Capital Parks in Washington, D.C., for additional training.

During the next five years, Finley moved a lot – to California’s Pinnacles National Monument, Big Basin State Park and Yosemite National Park, and finally to Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, where he was responsible for park law enforcement, emergency medical aid, communications, wilderness permitting programs and wildland and structural fire programs.

Finley returned to the nation’s capital in 1978 and began learning the political ropes associated with running the nation’s park system. As a legislative affairs specialist, Finley organized the legislative program for the Western and Pacific Northwest regions. “I worked both the House and Senate sides of the Hill and learned how to generate constituency pressure, develop unusual allies and productively engage state governments to support the Interior Department position,” he recalled.

The first of Finley’s four superintendent positions began in 1981 when he joined Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. He was reassigned to Alaska just two years later, providing Finley an opportunity to manage and operate a 13-park territory.

“In Alaska, I learned the importance of protecting large landscapes and ensuring that all the parts of the natural ecosystem were protected and allowed to function in a manner to ensure biological diversity,” he said.

When Finley was named superintendent of Everglades National Park in 1986, he had already crisscrossed the country twice in 15 years. And his time in Florida was not easy. Everglades’ location within 20 miles of a county that was growing by 100,000 people a year threatened an ecosystem that included 13 endangered species.

“I used my SOC biological training to manage and direct over 100 management and research scientists,” Finley recalled.

He immersed himself in the water issues facing Everglades and by the time he left in 1989, he had weathered a number of political battles. Finley’s dogged determination to protect the park and its ecosystem contributed to a reputation as being one of the few Park Service professionals who had the political savvy, negotiating skill and toughness to bring parties together. Finley would be put to the test when he was named superintendent at Yosemite National Park in 1989.

Finley joined Yosemite in the midst of a bitter, long-standing battle between various environmental groups and the Curry Company, which had held the concession contract within the park for more than 90 years. Finley was just 42 years old when he became superintendent, and his enthusiasm and dynamic energy were seen as positives at a time when the park was “being loved to death,” as described in 1993 by the Christian Science Monitor.

Exponential growth in visitors, a lack of federal funding and deteriorating facilities threatened the nation’s second oldest national park. It was natural that Finley became a target for those who took issue with how the park was run. But his experience in bringing warring parties together resulted in the creation of a plan to restore the meadows in Yosemite Valley, move the concession business further from the natural beauty of the park and bring additional revenue into the park for ongoing maintenance and restoration.

t had taken Finley just five years to accomplish what many had viewed as impossible.

He moved to his final superintendent post in Yellowstone National Park, where he served from 1994 until his retirement in 2001. There was no shortage of issues facing Finley upon his arrival – from recreation and bison management to restoration of the cutthroat trout and the reintroduction of the gray wolf. He described one of his greatest achievements as establishing the Yellowstone Park Foundation, which has since raised more than $100 million.

“The contribution of the foundation cannot be overstated,” Finley said. “It allows park staff to undertake projects, studies and restorations that, while not required by law, are required by conscience.”

But Finley didn’t really retire. His 30 years traversing the country gave him a perspective that few enjoy – a keen understanding of the delicate balance in managing the nation’s public lands so future generations can enjoy them. Joining the Turner Foundation in 2001 seemed a logical next step.

As president of the Turner Foundation until 2016, Finley helped distribute more than $334 million in grants to organizations around the world. He described his work at the foundation as apolitical, with the goal simply to help future generations and “to leave the planet better than we found it.” Under Finley’s leadership, the foundation funded projects to “green” the nation’s hotels and restaurants, help create sustainable commercial fishing in Alaska and the Northern Pacific, defend biodiversity by protecting habitats in Africa and Asia, and launch projects to help the nation’s youth.

Today, as chair of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, Finley is in his third act. When he wades into the swirling Rogue River and casts his fly rod, he is both recreational enthusiast and environmental steward. Finley is still maintaining that delicate balance.

Reprinted from the Spring 2018 issue of The Raider, SOU’s alumni magazine