In the fall of 1963, 5-year-old Tom Anderson was admitted to the Variety Club Heart Hospital at the University of Minnesota for a risky open-heart surgery.
Anderson had a congenital atrial septal defect, which reduces oxygen in the blood supply and gets progressively worse if it goes untreated.
University of Minnesota Regent Tom Anderson credits the University with saving his life and in 2015, he took a position on the University’s Board of Regents as a way to give back to the school.
At the time of the procedure, it carried a 50-50 chance of success. The University hospital was one of the only places in the country who could perform the operation.
“The prognosis was not good if we did nothing,” Anderson said. His parents debated about whether to go through with the surgery and decided to do it.
Community members from Anderson’s home town of Alexandria, Minnesota helped his family by raising 30 pints of blood needed to have the surgery.
“I still keep a list of this day, I can tell you who the people were who donated blood,” he said. “I keep it on my desk … I’m very grateful for what communities have done.”
Anderson credits University surgeon C. Walton Lillehei and the rest of the University team that pioneered the procedure with saving his life.
“If I had not been born in the shadow of the University of Minnesota, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
Anderson said that while he remembers his time as a student at the University fondly, his strongest memories of campus come from the month of his recovery after surgery.
“I remember … going on walks with my mom along River Road and crossing the bridge over Washington Avenue to the Mall,” he said.
Anderson decided to study mortuary science at the University following the death of his father, who owned a small funeral home in Alexandria. He said he wanted to take up the family business so it didn’t have to be sold.
“I had frankly never dreamed of being a funeral director at that time,” he said. “But out of family commitment, my hand went up and I said ‘I’ll do it.’”
As a student, Anderson would be on campus from Sunday night to Thursday night and then go home on the weekends to help at the mortuary.
After running the family business for over three decades, Anderson said he wanted to become involved with the University community.
“I said, ‘I need to be part of this again.’”
Anderson was elected to the Board of Regents in 2015 and quickly developed a reputation among the University’s leadership and other Regents as a friendly and engaged Board member.
“Tom Anderson is so friendly, he would talk to a fence post,” said board Chair Dean Johnson. “He is engaged and he listens to the procedures and the protocols of how the Board of Regents operates. He gains credibility with the leadership, with the administration as well as other regents. He takes each issue on its merits. I have a great deal of respect for Tom.”
Johnson said witnessing Anderson’s conversations with Minnesota Legislature while he was running for a seat on the Board resonated with him.
“I remember his statement, ‘I want to give something back,’” Johnson said. “That’s the right attitude to have about being a regent.”
Anderson has served on a number of corporate, community and civic boards, including the Alexandria Area Chamber of Commerce, the Douglas County Hospital Foundation, and the Board of Directors for Knute Nelson Health Care, where he was Board Chair for three years.
“Tom was very much a servant-leader,” said Knute Nelson’s President and CEO, Mark Anderson. “He really cared about the people we were serving. You can just sense Tom has a genuine affection for spending time with people.”
Douglas Machine CFO Tom Wosepka first met Anderson when their sons played hockey together. As a new member of the Alexandria community, Wosepka said Anderson was a valuable friend to have.
“One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate about Tom is his knowledge and his care and concern for the community he lives in,” Wosepka said. “He’s one of those guys who just knows everybody.”
The Daily recently spoke with Anderson for a short Q&A about his time on the board so far.
Since getting elected to the Board, what have been some of your priorities for the University?
I really have no priorities other than when I say I want to make the University the best it can possibly be … I want every-day Minnesotans to understand how the University of Minnesota is relevant in their lives and how it can help them … I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the University of Minnesota … I have no agenda other than I study everything, I study every issue.
What might be some of the issues the Board is handling this year that could show that relevance to Minnesotans?
I think what we’re doing with M Health and the initiative to have a brand of health … we don’t necessarily know where that is going, but I think getting a handle of where M Health will be in the Affordable Care Act is one thing that we have to talk about … We’re well-positioned with our experts at the University with creating tertiary and quaternary care and we just need to know where that fits with the Fairview system. I’ve got great confidence in the leadership at the University of Minnesota Physicians and the Medical School that we’ll figure out where that exact fit is … I think MnDRIVE and what we’re doing in research in all phases of technology will be huge in creating more job opportunities and business opportunities … I think we have to always look at what is the student experience at the University of Minnesota … I think teaching the grand challenges of the world to our kids and giving this liberal-based education … those things are the things I enjoy working on.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to for the rest of the year?
I’m learning so much. My take is I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s happening there. I’m excited about what kind of partnerships we can have with our legislators … I think another issue where we’ve partnered with legislators to create a better Minnesota is our Bell Museum of Natural history going up on the St. Paul campus. We’ve been able to co-fund that together. I’m excited about what can be done. I think that if we work together — the people of the state of Minnesota, the Board of Regents, the talent we have on research and the state legislators — we can really fulfill our land-grant mission fabulously.
Editor’s Note: This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.