How retiring dean of students Pat Bosco found his American dream in K-State

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Pat Bosco, vice president of student life and dean of students, speaks at the unveiling of the future site for the Multicultural Student Center at Kansas State University on April 29, 2019. Bosco will be retiring in July after 48 years of working for K-State. (Morgan Clarke | Collegian Media Group)

Pat Bosco may seem to be a Wildcat like you and me, but crucially, he’s not like you and me.

To be a Wildcat like Bosco, the retiring dean of students, you’d have to bleed purple. To do that, you’d have to breathe it, live it and even drive a purple car.

You’d have to love your job on the good days and through the good times, and continue to love it when you have to call a student’s parents to deliver the news that their student died on your watch. You’d have to get up at 5 a.m. every day and come to campus, then stare at the clock at 9 p.m. knowing your day still isn’t over.

You’d have to do all that and smile, proclaiming your purple pride each and every day for nearly 50 years.

A third of Kansas State’s history. Five university presidents.

A man’s life.

When Bosco first set foot on K-State’s campus as a student in 1969, he could not have known the impact he would eventually have on the institution, even with his student government ambitions. Now, 50 years later, Bosco is leaving behind a legacy of commitment to students, unending passion and doing more than he ever had to.

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Pat Bosco, dean of students, speaks about encouraging and expanding diversity on campus at a solidarity rally in Bosco Plaza on Sept. 14, 2017. Bosco will retire in July after nearly 50 years at K-State. (Archive Photo by Kelly Pham | Collegian Media Group)

Pick any day of any semester in the past 40-something years, and you’ll probably find Bosco making his “pitch.”

He may be on campus, but he also may be at a high school somewhere in the state of Kansas. He’s probably standing in front of some group of somebodies — students, parents or anyone who cares to listen — interested in what the man in purple has to say about K-State and whether they should attend.

Lately, Bosco has been asking people to consider what amounts to a nearly $100,000 decision due to rising tuition — already a tough sell for something tangible like a luxury car, let alone a college degree.

But for Bosco, it’s an easy pitch.

“We’re simply communicating what is fact, and that is an easy sell,” Bosco said. “It all begins with a genuine and authentic understanding of what makes K-State special. We’re not for everybody. We’re a school that’s genuinely interested in student success and giving students an opportunity. It’s in the water here.”

It’s a decision Bosco himself made 50 years ago when he decided he would fly across the country to Manhattan for his higher education. At the time, Bosco was at the tail-end of two years at an upstate community college in his home state of New York when he heard anchorman Walter Cronkite come on the evening news and share the story of then-senator Mike Mansfield’s Landon Lecture at K-State.

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Pat Bosco during his first year as a student at Kansas State University. (Courtesy Photo by the 1970 Royal Purple yearbook)

Bosco said he was impressed when he wrote the university for more information and got back not just a generic formula response, but a personal letter from the assistant director of admissions.

When Bosco arrived at K-State, then-student body president Chuck Newcom took him under his wing in the Student Governing Association. Months later, during his second semester on campus, Bosco won the student body president seat.

When he graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, he stepped right into his first K-State job as director of student activities. Former K-State president Jon Wefald took the reins of the university in 1986, and as one of his first orders of business, he called Bosco into his office to reassign him for one specific job: turning the school’s plummeting enrollment numbers around. Bosco called this a defining moment of his life.

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(Courtesy Graphic from the 1970 Royal Purple yearbook)

“As a young professional who loved K-State but was sad to see many of the things going on on campus, to be asked by a president who did not know me, but only knew my reputation, and to be given the opportunity to make a difference at my school was, flat out, the most incredible professional moment of my life,” Bosco said.

Wefald said it didn’t take long for him to know Bosco was the person for the job.

“I talked to him for 45 minutes and I knew immediately that he was a winner and would be a great leader,” Wefald said.

Bosco went on to describe his relationship with Wefald.

“I often wonder how that came about,” Bosco said. “I only met him briefly in the hallway one day. I’d never visited a Kansas high school. I knew nothing about admissions or recruitment. I had certainly accomplished some things at the university, but he was very clear that his number one task was to turn our enrollments around, and our goal was to have one more student than the previous fall.”

As it turned out, Bosco said, the school had 800 more students the following fall, and by 1989, K-State had 3,000 incoming freshmen. It was the start of an amazing turnaround spearheaded by Wefald and Bosco that would see K-State’s enrollment numbers skyrocket over the president’s tenure.

“I’d crawl through broken glass for that man,” Bosco said. “He was an exceptionally strong president who had a vision and a focus that is very remarkable.”

Bosco said it’s hard to estimate how many people he has talked to or influenced over the years. He sees thousands of prospective and current students each year. He’s hired hundreds of people — and fired a few as well. In his office, he’s had six administrative assistants, and he has relied on over 300 student workers who he has placed his complete confidence in to run his life and carry out his office’s mission.

Similarly, Bosco has had a number of people influence him over his life, many of them former administrators or people he’s worked closely with. As a mentor to so many students, Bosco said he misses talking with some of his own former mentors.

“They’ve all died,” Bosco said. “That’s the downside of being almost 70.”

For as much as Bosco loves K-State, the thought of leaving did cross his mind a few times during his career. Bosco said he has had lots of opportunities to go to other colleges, universities or even corporations.

“I was very serious about joining AT&T and their corporate executive program,” Bosco said. “I was invited to Philadelphia to meet with their five-state regional president and to go through orientation there. I was ready to leave higher ed.”

In Philadelphia, Bosco spent a day-and-a-half with AT&T executives in the mid-1970s. At the very last meeting of the trip, AT&T’s east coast president invited him to the top floor of their downtown office building. As the pair started their conversation, the president got a phone call, leaving Bosco by himself.

“He takes the call, and I stand up,” Bosco said. “His office had windows from floor to ceiling, on three sides of this magnificent office. I’m standing at this window, looking out over downtown Philadelphia, and all I see are rooftops and buildings and cars way down below.

“It was at that point that I realized this wasn’t for me,” Bosco continued. “I’m never going to make an impact here. I’m never going to be able to touch someone’s life in a positive way. Thank God that gentleman took that phone call, or I could be an unemployed AT&T executive.”

So, Bosco stayed at K-State, pitching not to corporate executives but to thousands upon thousands of Kansas students and out-of-staters. He said he is humbled and overwhelmed by the words of others who say he and his team at the Office of Student Life have had any sort of positive impact on K-State. If Bosco has had any success, it’s because he surrounded himself with some incredible people, he said.

“I’m here and visible, but I’m not alone,” Bosco said. “If anything I say is untrue, I’m going to get bitten in the butt, but I don’t get bitten in the butt, and that makes the passion very real. There are schools that say they are like us, and we laugh. This place is very unique, and there may be other schools like us in the country, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re second to our culture of wanting to get better every day.”

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Pat Bosco (right), dean of students, sits in his office with Erin Poppe, then-graduate student in public administration, on Aug. 26, 2015. (Archive Photo by George Walker | Collegian Media Group)

It’s September 2017, and as the sun sets gently on K-State’s campus, a crowd of students gathers in front of the Student Union to demand one thing: that the university issue a stronger condemnation of the pro-white nationalist posters that appeared on campus the previous morning.

The rally’s organizers have chosen purple as the color of solidarity for the event, and in the sea of purple-clad students, Bosco has some measure of anonymity. Standing at the back of the crowd in the darkening evening, Bosco’s trademark purple sport coat is slung straight down the back of his shoulder. But Bosco — one of K-State’s most recognizable faces— is plainly visible to those who look for him.

After all, how can Bosco hide in Bosco Plaza?

“I would like to thank Pat Bosco for being here tonight and showing his concern, but I cannot glaze over the fact that there has been a silence and no response from our administration and our president,” Darrell Reese Jr., then-president of the Black Student Union, says to the crowd while directing his pointed message to Bosco. “Your silence speaks volumes, and your silence is a part of the problem.”

Bosco gives a brief response expressing his total personal condemnation for the posters, but concedes the microphone to students, giving them ownership of their rally. One by one, students take jabs at the university for its lack of action. After hours of rallying, Bosco is still there and invites what few students remain into the Union to continue the discussion. It’s after midnight, but Bosco still doesn’t waver in his resolve to hear the students out.

In his years at K-State, this is a situation that has played out countless times for Bosco, and it’s an example of the taken-for-granted status he has curated on campus. It’s almost a given that when a student needs anything, Bosco is there.

“Over the years, I’ve had everything from suicide attempts to fathers and mothers wanting to talk about a poor decision their student is about to make or has already made,” Bosco said.

Sometimes Bosco gets calls from parents for more mundane issues, and he expects and accepts it. He has to expect it, he said, because he gives out his personal phone number to thousands of parents each year at orientation and enrollment.

Bosco gave a recent example of one of those more mundane calls, where a parent was concerned because his daughter had lost her phone inside a wall. In another instance, a father asked Bosco to sit down with his daughter after she was not chosen for any of the sororities she rushed. In dealing with those issues, Bosco said sometimes all it takes is sitting down with his students and maybe taking them out for some Call Hall ice cream.

The hardest calls, though, are calling parents to tell them their student died.

“It’s the worst nightmare imaginable,” Bosco said.

But in times when he can help, Bosco said he has always done more than what has been required of him.

“I have ignored, over the years, the liability concerns, what our attorney says is going above and beyond what needs to be done, in terms of being protected by lawsuits,” Bosco said. “I’ve just gone ahead. I’ve been lucky; I’ve never had a situation where it’s gone bad, or where it’s not worked out to the best interest of one of my students or family members.”

In the face of criticism against him or the university, such as the rally over the white nationalist posters, Bosco said that, while he hasn’t always made the right decisions, he’s always tried to give his best for the university. As a risk-taker, he’s opened himself up to a lot of criticism over the years, he said.

“The university is complex,” Bosco said. “You’re not going to make everyone happy. But you have to build up enough grace that when people disagree, they still have respect for you and understand you did the best job you could.

“There are advantages of being in one place for 50 years, but there are also disadvantages,” Bosco continued. “I never had a do-over. I’ve never had a chance to have a clean slate and start off brand new. I’ve had to live with the good decisions and the decisions that did not work out as well.”

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Pat Bosco, dean of students, enjoys the Spring Game in Bill Snyder Family Stadium on April 22, 2017. Bosco will retire in July after nearly 50 years at K-State. (Archive Photo by Emily Starkey | Collegian Media Group)

Every K-State student knows the deal: if you catch Pat Bosco without purple on his person, he will write you a scholarship on the spot. What fewer people know is that never once in his career has he had to pay up a penny on that promise. He said he doesn’t know exactly where “that scholarship thing” came from, but it might have been a promise he made during a weak moment in front of a crowd.

“I get stopped all over the world by my students trying to make sure I’m wearing purple,” Bosco said. “I get stopped at beaches in the Caribbean, at Vegas at the poker table, all over the state, restaurants, anywhere. It’s been fun to have that promise with the students.”

Bosco came close one night, though, when he was coming back from a speaking event in Wichita with a carload of students. He said that after he bought some chicken for the students to eat, he took off his purple tie to properly eat the gizzards he was hungry for. When the troop arrived back at Anderson Hall, one of the trailing cars suddenly stopped behind him, and students piled out and said, “Dean Bosco! Dean Bosco! You’re not wearing purple!”

Bosco got a sly smile as he recalled this story and said when he was confronted that day, all he had to do was raise his pant legs to show off his purple socks.

It appears Bosco will get to retire without ever writing that check, but it’s been easy for him to keep his purple promise over the years. He practically lives purple, with a purple front door on his house, a purple car, purple T-shirts, shoes, jackets and more. At home, Bosco has more than 150 purple ties, he said. They’ve come from all over, but Bosco actually has a “tie guy” in Vegas who he haggles with when he goes on trips.

The one purple item he’s missing? A purple cap with the words “Cats for Pat” on it. Bosco shares a first name with another notable K-State alumnus — retiring U.S. Senator Pat Roberts — and at a home football game back in the 1980s, Roberts wanted Bosco to talk with his daughter personally about K-State. Bosco noticed Roberts’ cap and complimented him on such a “great hat.”

“I tell him it’s a fantastic hat, and he rips it off and gives it to me,” Bosco said. He spent about an hour with Roberts’ wife and daughter, and later that day, Roberts came back, embarrassed. He explained to Bosco that the hat was actually just one of 500 made for his supporters, and at $1,000 a piece, he had to ask Bosco for the hat back.

Years later, with his own retirement on the horizon, Roberts said he will be sending a hat to Bosco soon.

“I can only find one, and that’s the only one I have, but I’ll send it to him,” Roberts said.

As far as his most valuable possessions, Bosco listed three: his purple K-State class ring, his wedding band and a purple rock his wife gave him some years ago at a poker tournament in Las Vegas.

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Pat Bosco, dean of students, speaks about a student involvement initiative on Jan. 25, 2018 in the Student Union. Bosco will retire in July after nearly 50 years at K-State. (Archive Photo by Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

“It’s brought me tremendous luck over the past 30 years,” Bosco said. “It’s just a small rock. I use it as a poker card protector — also use it as a good luck charm — and it’s been with me so many years. I’ve misplaced it a few times and thought I lost it, and I got feelings of depression, but it always shows back up in obvious places.”

Two of those three items are obviously related to Bosco’s personal family. Even though he’s spent much of his adult life more-or-less living on the K-State campus, he said it was never hard for him to find a balance between his campus family and his real family — his wife Susan and children Christopher and Mary Catherine, all K-State graduates themselves. That’s in addition to two grandchildren he and his wife occasionally babysit, whom Bosco said are future K-Staters who learned the Fight Song before the alphabet.

“I’ve had the ability of juggling many balls in the air at one time,” Bosco said. “My daughter was a three-sport varsity athlete at Manhattan High, and I never missed a cross country meet or a basketball game or a softball game. My son was in [National Honor Society] and was a soccer player and I never missed an activity or program, but I was also in a position where I could dictate my schedule and have some flexibility, where other people maybe don’t have that opportunity.”

Beyond campus, Bosco said he found a home in the Little Apple, which he called a great place to raise his family due to the “10-minute rule.”

“Not only is it a 10-minute rule on campus, where you can go from one end of the campus to the other if you don’t dilly-dally, but in Manhattan, it’s the same thing,” Bosco said. “We were able to raise our children and have multiple activities in one day. In places like Kansas City, you have to make choices because the distance and drive makes it difficult to make it to activities, whereas in Manhattan, you don’t have to pick and choose.”

Even then, Bosco always ran a packed schedule, waking up every morning between 5 and 6 a.m. after only four hours of sleep. He’s never been able to sleep much more than that, he said, and the four hours he gets are with the help of a sleeping pill. Bosco said he keeps a paper pad by his bed because he gets ideas at all times of the night.

In the mornings, Bosco said he reads through some of the news, and then someone comes in and helps him exercise a few times a week. He doesn’t eat breakfast (or anything) in the morning.

And with that morning ritual, Bosco’s day starts. His exact schedule varies depending on the day, he said, but on most days, he stays until he’s no longer needed.

“It’s sometimes very hard for me to leave campus,” Bosco said. “It’s easy for me to get here, but very hard to leave.”

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Pat Bosco, dean of students, gives a speech on "Boscology" for Mortar Board Week on Feb. 14, 2019, in the Leadership Studies Building. Mortar Board is a senior honor society at K-State. (Kevin Thompson | Collegian Media Group)

After 50 years at K-State, Bosco is hanging up the presumably-purple boots and leaving the job and university he so loves. Over the years, he and his wife Susan have also grown fond of traveling — especially to Las Vegas — and going on cruises, so Bosco said he expects to do more of that in retirement, especially when they can do so with family.

“About 12 years ago, my wife retired after 30 years working the public schools,” Bosco said. “She’s waited patiently for me to join her. She asked me, ‘When is enough enough?’ It was our conversation a number of years ago that gave us an ending point. There’s always projects, so it was better for us to pick an age [70] rather than waiting for projects to get done.”

As he is getting ready to leave the university July 1, Bosco reflected on several of the initiatives he started or took a major part in, including the campus daycare program, the Berney Family Welcome Center and millions of dollars in renovations to the dining centers, the Union, the Recreation Complex and buildings. Right now, he is leaving K-State with major projects in progress, like Cats’ Cupboard, needs-based scholarships and the upcoming Morris Family Multicultural Student Center.

“If we’ve had some success, it’s been on the shoulders of the giants before us,” Bosco said.

Bosco’s successor — who will hopefully be more tech-savvy than he is, Bosco said — will have to deal with funding issues that have plagued the university in recent times, but Bosco said he is confident that they will work well with the university to ensure that K-State is able to continue its culture of quality inside and outside the classroom.

“K-State always comes up with a K-State solution,” Bosco said. “We may take a turn here or a bump in the road there, but the culture here is to do what’s right and rely on all of the good people to make decisions in the best interest of our school.”

Bosco himself has dealt with some of those pressing matters like budget and personnel issues, but on his harder days, sometimes all he could do was drop everything and walk across campus, he said, which gave him energy and reminded him why he was there: to serve students.

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Pat Bosco, dean of students, receives a jersey and lifelong season tickets from university president Richard Myers at the Sunflower Showdown basketball game on Feb. 5, 2019. Bosco will retire in July after nearly 50 years at K-State. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

On any of his walks across campus, Bosco is likely to stop more than a few times to say hello to his students, many of them by name. Those same students are the ones bound to use the word “love” to describe their alma mater, something that Bosco said he takes great joy in. What other university in the Big 12 Conference can say that, Bosco asked.

For that reason, Bosco said his best day at K-State was his everyday.

“K-State was my American dream,” Bosco said. “Not only for me, but for my family. A special place. Hopefully for a lot of other people and families, too.”

The Collegian’s Bailey Britton and Peter Loganbill contributed to this story.

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Rafael Garcia
I'm Rafael Garcia, and I'm a senior in journalism and news editor for the K-State Collegian. I believe that much of the world's problems come from a lack of understanding of other people, but by telling other people's stories and finding the good in the world, I think we can increase our understanding and appreciation of each other. Questions, comments, concerns, news tips? Email me at rgarcia@kstatecollegian.com.