When Charles W. Sorensen retired in August 2014, he said he couldn’t think of any other career that could have been more satisfying than serving as University of Wisconsin-Stout’s chancellor for 26 years.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Sorensen said just days before retiring.
Colleagues and friends recalled Sorensen as a leader, who helped shape UW-Stout into a 21st century campus during his tenure.
Sorensen, 77, died Friday, Feb. 23, in Florida following complications from a recent stroke.
Chancellor Bob Meyer, who succeeded Sorensen, announced Sorensen’s passing in a memo to campus.
“I am fortunate to have worked with Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen as a UW-Stout faculty member, program director, college dean and special assistant to the chancellor for state and federal relations,” Meyer said in the memo. “Not a day goes by that I don’t apply something that I learned from Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen as I try to carry on the legacy that he established during his 26 years at UW-Stout.
“He brought a passion to the position of chancellor every day that he stepped on campus,” Meyer said. “That passion resulted in a physical and programmatic transformation of this campus that will benefit generation after generation of students.”
Meyer concluded by expressing his deep sympathies to Sorensen’s wife, Toni Poll-Sorensen, as well as his children, grandchildren, and other family and friends.
“He was a visionary,” said John Enger, retired UW-Stout executive director of University Relations, of Sorensen. “He was a man who understood the value of education.”
Sorensen described himself as growing up “dirt poor” in Moline, Ill., with his father laboring in a factory and his mother working as a domestic servant. His high school counselor suggested he not attempt higher education because of his family’s modest means, so right out of high school Sorensen took a factory job like his father.
Within a week, he knew there was a better life and soon after started at Black Hawk Community College in Illinois, working at a gas station to help pay for school. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., a master’s degree in history from Illinois State University and a doctorate in American history from Michigan State University. He also attended Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Management.
Sorensen arrived at UW-Stout in 1988, seeing the potential of the applied educational philosophy, blended with liberal arts.
He spearheaded UW-Stout becoming a digital campus, establishing the eStout laptop program for undergraduate students in 2002 and building wireless infrastructure to support it. Because the laptop program raised student costs, it could have backfired and hurt enrollment, Enger said.
“Students saw the value, and enrollments went up,” Enger said. “Chancellor Sorensen took a risk but saw the benefits.”
In 2001 UW-Stout won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the first recipient in higher education of the prestigious honor for performance excellence among U.S. businesses and organizations.
The campus also branded and marketed itself as Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University in 2007.
“I maintain Charles Sorensen was the greatest leader of the institution,” Enger said. “The changes he made kept the original mission of the university but did what had to happen to take it into the 21st century. His greatest accomplishment was taking a fine university and turning it into a great one. The successes he accomplished are what made UW-Stout what it is today.”
John Murphy, retired dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, recalled Sorensen as a chancellor who built programs, improved the university foundation and influenced tens of thousands of students.
“He made us recognized worldwide,” Murphy said. “He took a good school and made it great. He was a builder and visionary. It was exciting to work with him.”
Creating a digital campus or receiving the polytechnic designation or Baldrige award — any of those would have been major accomplishments for a university leader, but Sorensen did all three, Murphy said.
“It’s amazing when you look back at what he did,” Murphy said, his voice breaking with emotion. “He had a great intellect. He was a great human being and he believed in humanity. His heart was in education. He made a difference.”
During Sorensen’s tenure undergraduate majors doubled, many in science and technology and the arts. UW-Stout opened the Stout Technology and Business Park, Discovery Center, Center for Applied Ethics and expanded the Cooperative Education Program.
Julie Furst-Bowe, who served seven years as provost under Sorensen’s leadership and is now vice president of Chippewa Valley Technical College, recalled Sorensen as striving to promote women and minorities. In 1995, the university received the Governor's Diamond Award from the Wisconsin Glass Ceiling Commission in recognition of the school's efforts in hiring and promoting women and minorities.
“He just realized everyone deserved that same chance and opportunity for success,” Furst-Bowe said.
Sorensen always paid attention to students, taking a genuine interest in them, and in graduates and their successes, Furst-Bowe said, noting Sorensen’s “face would light up” as he talked to students and alumni.
Both Enger and Furst-Bowe remembered Sorensen’s sense of humor and zest for life.
“He never took himself too seriously,” Enger said. “He never forgot his humble beginnings. He was a great man and a wonderful friend. I feel honored to have been a part of his life.”
Here is the official obituary from the Sorensen family:
Chancellor Emeritus, Charles William Sorensen of the University of Wisconsin-Stout, passed away on Friday, February 23, 2018, in The Hospice of the Comforter in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Chuck is survived by his adoring wife and partner Toni Poll-Sorensen of Maitland, Florida, and his three daughters and their husbands: Elizabeth and Joseph Heyboer of Jenison, Michigan; Heather and Tom Jones of Lake Mary, Florida; and Jenny and Dan Strockis of Walker, Michigan.
Chuck and Toni also have seven grandchildren: Cameron Jones and his wife Kali, Lauren Broschak and her husband Corey, Cody Heyboer and his partner Kota Streling, Ashlyn and her sister Riley, and Alyssa and her brother Ty Dan. In addition, Chuck and Toni have two great-grandchildren: Keegan and Caiden.
Chuck is survived by his sisters Donna Hall and Dorthy Staub of Moline, Illinois, and several nieces and nephews. Chuck was preceded in death by his father Peter and his mother Anna Sorensen, his brother Norman Sorensen, and sisters Mary Lance and Laurie Perrine.
Chancellor Sorensen graduated from Moline High School and holds degrees from Blackhawk Community College and Augustana College in Moline, Illinois. He also graduated from Illinois State University and Michigan State University where he received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2002.
Chuck spent his professional life as an historian, scholar and administrator. His first position teaching history was in a junior high school in Denver, Colorado. After graduate school he taught at Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana, and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Chuck’s career then took a turn toward higher education administration. He served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley State University, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Winona State University, and finally as Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout from 1988- 2014.
There will be a celebration of Chuck’s life on Saturday, May 12, 2018, at 5 p.m. at The Newcomer Funeral Home’s South Seminole Chapel in Longwood, Florida. Please check their website at www.NewcomerOrlando.com for directions and further information.
The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the University of Wisconsin-Stout Charles W. Sorensen Endowed Scholarship at the Stout University Foundation (https://foundation.uwstout.edu/pages/givings/charles-w-sorensen-endowed-scholarship) or The Hospice of the Comforter in Chancellor Sorensen’s name.