Former Southern Oregon University executive vice president Earl Potter III died in a single-vehicle crash Monday in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota State Patrol. Potter, 69, had been president at St. Cloud State University since 2007.
The crash happened at 5:36 p.m. Monday while Potter was driving to the Twin Cities for a meeting, the Times reported, citing police reports. His Toyota 4 Runner drifted into a guardrail and ended up flipping multiple times. Potter was the sole occupant.
He had recently reached an agreement to continue at St. Cloud State through at least June 2019.
“We have a gaping hole in the heart of our community today. And we won’t truly appreciate his impact for years, and decades and maybe generations," said Brian Schoenborn, a St. Cloud State graduate and local lawyer who worked closely with Potter on several campus initiatives. "He cared so deeply and gave so much. Our entire community should bow its head for what he gave us. He will be forever missed.”
Potter was SOU's provost as well as executive vice president, the university's No. 2 leadership position, when he left to take the St. Cloud post in 2007 after four years at SOU. He succeeded outgoing President Roy Saigo, who served as president emeritus at St. Cloud until becoming interim president at SOU in 2014.
Potter was driving to the Twin Cities for a meeting with the SCSU Foundation Board chair, according to the university, when his Toyota 4 Runner went off Interstate 694, hitting the guard rails. The vehicle over-corrected, crossing into the center lane, almost hitting another vehicle. The vehicle then over-corrected to the left, causing the SUV to flip several times until it struck the cable barriers. The crash happened just after 5:30 p.m.
The State Patrol was investigating what caused Potter's vehicle to veer off the road, including checking to see whether any video cameras captured the crash. The State Patrol was planning to inspect Potter's vehicle to determine whether mechanical problems might have led to the crash, said Sgt. Jesse Grabow. An autopsy was planned in Hennepin County to see whether medical issues contributed to the crash, he said.
Former SOU President Elisabeth Zinser, who hired Potter as provost in 2004, remembered him as “a very strategic thinker, superb with challenging others and delegating them to his themes, to the kind of progress we were working toward, while providing the appropriate guidance, yet giving them lots of autonomy and license.”
Zinser said she early on marked him as university president material, especially with his gift for connecting with the regional business community and “making a huge difference, building relationships with the Chambers of Commerce, business leaders and nonprofits, bringing them to SOU and helping with their influence in building a future.”
Brad Hicks, president of the Medford-Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, also lauded Potter’s skill at creating ties to regional business and community organizations. He noted, “You didn’t have to go to campus to find him; he was out at Chamber meetings, at SOREDI or nonprofit meetings. He walked the talk.”
Ed Battistella, a professor of English at SOU, worked for Potter when Battistella was dean of Arts and Letters.
"He was a fine strategic thinkers and a pleasure to work for," Battistella said. "Even when we didn't see eye-to-eye about something he was always open to discussion. I learned a lot from him."
Dennis Slattery, an SOU trustee and accounting professor who was hired by Potter, said, “He was a really effective university leader and I thought he should have been chosen president ... I hate to see his passing. Education has lost a really fine leader. He really understood how to make the community connection.”
Potter came to St. Cloud State from Southern Oregon University to be the university's 22nd president. He inherited a campus known for its raucous move-in weekend parties and disputes with neighbors who sought a peaceful co-existence with the local university. He cracked down on student behavior, more strictly enforcing codes of conduct and bolstering support services for students engaging in risky behaviors.
He was forced to navigate the university through significant budget crises, while shepherding projects such as the extensive renovation of the National Hockey Center, the Fifth Avenue Live! redevelopment project, creation of a university Welcome Center just outside the campus border and construction of the Integrated Science and Laboratory Engineering Facility on campus. His budget-cutting decisions, particularly the closure of the school's aviation program, earned him some critics. But he generally won respect from those who worked with and against him.
“President Potter came to St. Cloud State because he felt this is the type of place where he could make a difference," according to a statement from his wife, Christine, which was read at a news conference on campus Tuesday morning. "He was incredibly proud of St. Cloud State University and its students, faculty and staff. And he likewise was proud of the greater St. Cloud community. We thank you for your thoughts and prayers."
Potter's desire to keep tuition low and allow everyone a chance at an education earned praise from Steven Rosenstone, chief executive officer of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and Ashish Vaidya, St. Cloud State provost and vice president for academic affairs.
"President Potter’s commitment to access and opportunity is unwavering in our work and was one of the prime reasons why I chose to join his team and him in partnership,” said Vaidya, who was named acting president of St. Cloud State by Rosenstone in the wake of the news of Potter's death.
Potter served on numerous community task forces, boards and initiatives and was known for putting in long hours and operating on little sleep.
Kathy Gaalswyk, president of Initiative Foundation, said Potter had a gift for listening to diverse viewpoints, identifying common themes and bringing a group together to create action.
"I honestly have never worked with a more strategic thinker than Earl," Gaalswyk said, crediting him for his leadership roles with the Greater St. Cloud Area Community Pillars initiative and other programs. "When I think about his commitment to community and economic development — certainly with the (Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation) design and launch, and being active with the downtown process — he was vital."
His leadership created a culture change in the university that will carry on, said Commander James Steve of the St. Cloud Police Department. Steve was a St. Cloud State student in the mid-1980s and saw firsthand how the university struggled for years to fight its image as a party school. With Potter's leadership, and partnership with the city and Mayor Dave Kleis, things slowly changed on those move-in weekends.
“He turned a culture of what had been going on down there ... around," Steve said. "It was a huge transformation I observed. I think it passed on through to his leadership group that this culture change will go on. He’s left a lasting impact, not only on me but other officers who are St. Cloud State grads.”
Potter previously served in leadership positions at Eastern Michigan University, Lesley University, Cornell University, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the University of Colorado. He served 24 years in the Coast Guard, where he attained the rank of captain.
Gaalswyk said Potter was always positive and much more than just a board member; he was a good friend.
"I've been scrolling through my many conversations with him," Gaalswyk said. "I have not thought of one where there isn't a personal check-in or exchange of stories about whose grandkids are the cutest or smartest. … (There's) a lot of tears today.”
Freelance reporter John Darling of Ashland contributed to this report. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.