As colleges build futures for students, there’s always someone behind the scenes with a vision for the campuses where those destinies come to fruition and ideas flourish.
For Centralia College, Steve Ward is that guy.
But after 28 years as the college’s vice president of finances and administration at Centralia College, Ward is retiring. Ward has been credited as the visionary who helped turn the campus from a “high school with ashtrays” in the 1970s and 1980s into the alluring, regionally-renowned facility many see it as today.
His last day with the college is Thursday, July 15.
“Between the city, the community, the students, the faculty and the staff, it’s been a great area to work. I’ve really enjoyed it,” Ward, a 1977 Centralia College graduate, recently told The Chronicle. “I think that none of this would have been possible unless I had all these people saying ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s go along with that,’ or ‘I’ve got an idea, can you help me get it started?’ etcetera. I kind of feel like I owed my start, where I’m at in life, to this college. So when the opportunity came in ‘93 to come back here and work, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Today, Centralia College has a “university feel,” as Ward puts it. It’s also gearing up to start construction on a multi-use athletic complex — the “field of dreams,” as he calls it — that will serve as a close link to the downtown area. Ward also plans on being a consultant for the college as it develops a plan to build the college’s Teacher Education and Family Development Center.
Walking by buildings on a recent sunny day, Ward was stumped when asked what he’s most proud of accomplishing during his tenure. About 20 years ago, he led the charge in drafting and implementing a facilities master plan that helped bring the college into the 21st century — that’s one.
“There are just so many individual things I’m proud of on this campus,” he said.
Then there’s also another role he’s been proud of: between 2002 and 2018, Ward served as the executive director of the Centralia College Foundation alongside his work as an administrator. During that time, he helped increase the assets of the organization from a little more than $3 million to about $20 million.
“(Ward) has always been a strong proponent of the students. His actions and decisions reflect that commitment,” said Christine Fossett, the foundation’s current executive director, in an email. “During his tenure, he guided the board through some lean years in the beginning and set the foundation up for years of success when the economy bounced back. Along the way, he spent much of his time forging relationships with others who were as passionate about the college and students as he was.”
Ward, who has been on the foundation’s board since 1995, will remain there after his retirement.
Centralia College President Bob Mohrbacher said Ward has been entrenched in the community for many years and the college is particularly proud he’s a graduate of Centralia College.
“Steve Ward has been a key member of the Centralia College community for many years and has played a significant role in building the campus into what it is today. He is an active and engaged member of the Lewis County community, with his work with Providence Hospital, the Chehalis Foundation, coaching youth soccer and many other contributions,” Mohrbacher said in a statement.
For Ward, 67, his story started in 1972. As a high school graduate living in Lacey, Ward took interest in a post-high school education after giving a neighbor a ride down to Centralia College to fill out paperwork. Students began asking him if he was attending classes, and soon he was doing just that.
It took five years — and switching majors four times — but Ward persisted and graduated. He then transferred to Saint Martin’s University and later became a certified public accountant based out of Olympia.
Higher education eventually roped him back in. He accepted jobs as a comptroller at the University of Puget Sound and Northern Arizona University before Centralia College brought him back to his original stomping grounds.
His senior year of high school, Ward began a lifelong love of soccer. In high school, he stuck with football, though, because he said it was easier to get a date.
"It was just a natural fit for me. Had it been 20 years later, I probably wouldn't have played football,” Ward said.
He went on to play soccer competitively with many adult teams around Puget Sound. During that time, he was exposed to different cultures and ways to play. A persistent foot injury would eventually end his soccer playing days; he eventually took up competitive mountain biking, and has even raced in 24-hour marathons.
Ward had a finished draft of the university’s 20-year master plan in 1999, thanks to help from staff and the college’s architects. In part due to his long career with the college, he was able to hold steady the college’s long-term vision through several presidential administrations.
Some things changed, Ward said, but the overarching concept, components and vision remained. He owes some of that credit to the college’s relationship to the City of Centralia.
“When you’re the person that’s been here for almost 30 years, you can make sure that the original plan was stuck to it,” Ward said, sitting in his namesake plaza in the heart of the Centralia College’s campus. “We wouldn’t be sitting here in the middle of the street had the city been short sighted about it and didn’t support the college’s effort to beautify itself and make itself a true higher education campus.”
Joe Dolezal, a former trustee and current president of the Centralia College Foundation board, has worked with Ward since 2005. When it came to asking the city to vacate portions of the streets that bisected the college, in an effort to turn them into walkways, Dolezal said Ward was great about addressing neighbors’ concerns.
“He brought it down to a level that was real … And he did that so well, how he was able to convey it in such simple terms so people didn’t have to sit down in a 45-minute presentation,” he said.
During Ward’s time with the college, Dolezal said he’d been a true consensus builder and excellent ambassador in representing Centralia College among other Washington state community colleges.
“He was widely respected, very well respected in the community college system amongst administrators and being able to get things done — that was the big thing, he could get things done in a timely fashion and with respect to others … It was a pleasure to work with him. He’s always there for us when I needed him, and when the college needed him, and it’ll be nice for him to go out there and ride that bike and hopefully not break any bones,” Dolezal said.
Ward doesn’t plan on going anywhere after he retires. He said he and his wife, Kathleen Vodjansky-Ward, plan on staying on their property in unincorporated Lewis County.
He’s going to take a few months to “not be stressed out,” he said, and act like every day’s a Saturday. In January, he and his wife plan on purchasing their “adventure van,” which they’ll renovate into a traveling, livable vehicle — there’s still so much of the U.S. they need to see.
“This is a beautiful place to live. I mountain bike at Cooks Hill all the time, and that's just around the corner," he said of Lewis County.
Ward currently bikes about 50 to 60 miles a week. He plans on doubling that after he retires.