Two Phone Calls That Changed My Life
By Randy Bretz — May, 2022
I remember the call like it was yesterday. Quentin Gessner reached me at my desk at the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System (we called it IHETS) and said he had a job he thought I might be interested in. That was January 1979, Gessner was calling from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln about a position he had open, the Director of Mediated Instruction for the University. Here I sit in Lincoln, Nebraska 43 years later reflecting on Quent after hearing he passed away a couple of days ago. He turned 98 in January.
As he described that job on the phone, I mentioned that I’d already applied for it back in October and assumed that since I hadn’t heard, there’d be something else down the line. I learned that without a Ph.D. my application had been set aside. But, after that call from Quent, a few days later I was on a plane to Nebraska for a round of interviews. I’d been here before a couple of times, once when I was doing research for my Masters Thesis and a second time for an Open Learning conference hosted by the University of Mid-America. The opportunity of working with a highly regarded University and the equally well-known Nebraska Educational Television operation were a combination that resulted in uprooting from my home state and moving to Nebraska.
I’ve written and spoken on the value of connections, and it was my connection with Deans of Continuing Education at Indiana and Purdue Universities that put my name back on Quent’s desk. He hadn’t been happy with the candidates (with Ph.D. degrees) and so he called colleagues around the country. Because of those contacts he called me, and that phone call brought me to Nebraska where I still live.
But, there’s more to the story and my time with Quent that’s worth telling. The job that brought me to Nebraska included running the Media Center for UNL, the University’s Film Library which had customers across the country, and an innovative endeavor in open learning called the State University of Nebraska, or the SUN Program. It was this program that excited me, combining well produced educational television programs broadcast on NETV with correspondence courses offered by UNL. At the time, the SUN program was considered a national leader in open learning. But, a short-sighted politician discovered a relatively small line item in the University of Nebraska budget and managed to get others to question the value of taking education to the people which resulted in my budget being eliminated. I was devastated and ready to pack my car and return to Indiana. We hadn’t sold our house yet, the boys were still in school, and I could probably get my job back at IHETS.
Then came another call from Quent. “Bretz, I want you to stay. This is a blow to the program but I believe in the concept and we’ll find a way to make it happen.” He was at the National University Continuing Education Association (NUCEA) convention when he heard about the knee jerk reaction of the Unicameral. With the help and support of Nebraska ETV we shut down the SUN program and created the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Telecourse program. We not only offered courses which combined NETV programs with correspondent courses, we began to add videotaped graduate Engineering courses.
Later we developed the University of Nebraska Continuing Education Audio Network (UNCEAN) an audio network which provided statewide non-credit programs and we were instrumental in starting the National University Teleconference Network (NUTN) which employed a combination of satellite television and audio connections among institutions across the country.
The last time I communicated with Quent was back in January. It was a note on Facebook wishing him happy birthday and thanking him once again for those calls. Jan and I thought we’d only be in Lincoln for a few years, long enough for me to finish my Ph.D. and then it would be onto another job in higher education. Instead, we put down roots and still proudly call Lincoln home, all the outcome of two phone calls from Quent Gessner.