In Our View: Lasting Legacy

Hal Dengerink’s influence in Clark County will be felt well into the future

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It is difficult, in this small amount of space, to encapsulate the impact Hal Dengerink has had on Southwest Washington.

Director, for a time, of the Columbia River Crossing task force. Contributor to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve project. Member of the board of directors of the then-Southwest Washington Medical Center. Dengerink’s influence has touched seemingly every facet of life in Clark County, and yet his lasting legacy will be the years he served as chancellor for Washington State University Vancouver.

Dengerink died Wednesday at age 68 after battling glioblastoma, an aggressive form or brain cancer, for nearly two years. Yet even after his death, he will continue to cast a large shadow over the future of Clark County.

The final months of Dengerink’s life can, as well as anything, sum up the manner in which he lived. He declined to publicly discuss his illness — even when he was honored as Vancouver’s First Citizen in June, or when he resigned from WSUV in August — because to focus on him would be to take away from the work at hand.

And Dengerink knew how to work to get things done.

He came to Vancouver in 1989, sent from Pullman to oversee the satellite campus being established in an underserved region of the state. Before the creation of WSUV, local students needed to travel more than 100 miles to attend a four-year state university in Washington.

Launching a branch campus that began in Bauer Hall on the Clark College campus, Dengerink stood watch as Washington State University Vancouver selected a 351-acre site in the Salmon Creek area, established its own campus, expanded from an upper-division university to a full-service four-year school, and became an integral part of Clark County.

Today, the university offers 18 bachelor’s degrees, 10 master’s degrees, one doctoral program, and nearly 40 fields of study.

Such growth might have happened with or without Dengerink, but it likely would not have happened so smoothly.

“It’s amazing somebody could come into Southwest Washington and take the seed of WSUV and create as robust and successful a program as they have,” John White, a former Clark College trustee, told The Columbian earlier this year.

The importance of that extends well beyond the bucolic scenery of the WSUV campus. Before the creation of the university, not only were students in the region underserved, but the economy was, as well.

Higher education plays a crucial role in the vitality and the economic flexibility of an area. The development of young minds, trained in up-to-date techniques and technology, can help renew and invigorate businesses. Rather than suffer from “brain drain,” in which students leave the area for their education and often never return, Southwest Washington now keeps some of its brightest young workers at home.

Dengerink, who began his Washington State career as a psychology professor at the Pullman campus, played a role in this not only through his work at WSUV but also through collaboration with Clark College.

“Hal has done it by building partnerships, collaborating with WSU in Pullman, and forming very strong alliances with the local community,” White said.

That, it would seem, is what Dengerink will be best remembered for. WSUV is largely a monument to his success, but his triumphs go beyond that. As the criteria for First Citizen states, the award is handed out for “Exemplary citizenship and community service.”

Sounds like an apt description.