If you haven’t met Don Steeples, chances are you know someone who has.
Steeples, recently named the interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, made the rounds at KU during his 39-year career.
He taught thousands of undergraduates during the 20-plus years he taught “Earthquakes and Natural Disasters,” which consistently filled Budig Hall’s largest lecture space. And he’s worked with dozens of faculty and staff while serving in various administrative roles, whether that was as senior vice provost for scholarly support or offering his Kansas expertise on the Wheat State Whirlwind Tour for 15 years.
One of the perks of the new job, Steeples said, is the opportunity to catch up with people he met during those experiences.
“I’m looking forward to reconnecting with a lot of friends and colleagues,” he said.
If you’ve met Steeples through any of his many roles at KU, you may have learned that he’s a farmer who has operated wheat fields near his western Kansas hometown since he returned to the state to work at the university. Or you may have learned he’s a former football player who attended Kansas State University and went on to complete graduate degrees from Stanford. Or that one of his most well-known contributions to the field of geophysics happened when he shot a rifle, on purpose, into the ground. From that experiment, a new field of research called near-surface seismology was born.
If you haven’t met Steeples, it quickly becomes clear when you do meet him that he’s never done anything for accolades or prestige. He’s motivated by opportunities that allow him to make a contribution to a state and a profession he loves.
Steeples took a job at KU, which was the lowest-paying of nine job offers, because he wanted to get back to Kansas. He established the Steeples Service to Kansans award with his wife, Tammy, to recognize others’ work for the state and insists that he not present the award so the focus stays on the recipient. And while he held the title of McGee Distinguished Professor of Applied Geophysics he taught basic courses to freshmen and sophomores.
So, when Steeples received a call from Provost Jeffrey Vitter asking whether he would be interested in temporarily taking the helm of the College, he considered all the reasons someone would take the job. And he made sure the reasons that motivated him weren’t the wrong reasons.
The wrong reasons, according to Steeples, were doing it solely for prestige, more money or coming in with an ax to grind.
He was able to eliminate those right away. He’s had his share of contributions and accolades and has been living comfortably in retirement. And as for the ax: “I don’t have a hatchet, much less an ax,” he said.
But he still had another major factor to consider, which was disrupting the pace of his retirement. Up until just a few weeks ago, he was enjoying his newfound free time following his lengthy and multi-faceted career at KU.
“I’ve really enjoyed having six Saturdays a week,” he said.
Ultimately, the opportunity to give back to KU was one Steeples couldn’t pass up, especially in a role serving the liberal arts and sciences.
“I don’t know what other positions I would have been interested in. The College is historically what a university is all about,” he said.
For him, the job is a way to serve KU again, not jumpstart a new phase in his career.
“I hope to keep the College moving in the same direction that’s already been established and keep the trains running on time so the permanent dean will be able to hit the ground running,” he said.
And once the new dean is named, he’ll be glad to resume his more leisurely schedule working his wheat farm in western Kansas.