This fall’s incoming freshmen may not know who Ray Werner is. They should, because they will certainly feel the effect he had on Colorado College and Colorado Springs during their four years here. So many former students have, on both a professional and personal level.
Werner, who turned 90 recently, made his mark at the college, especially in athletics, and in the community as one of the leaders of Goodwill Industries and the early United Way.
Werner's influence on CC athletics is considerable, but his mark on the college went even further. He is remembered most fondly for his individual attention and a dynamic teaching style that made him a favorite among students when he taught economics from 1948 until his retirement in 1987.
He was more than a fantastic lecturer. He took a personal interest in several students over the years and used his behind-the-scenes connections as a good friend of then-president Lew Worner, for whom the student center is named, to aid many over the years.
Susan Hilb ’63 was one of four women studying economics during Werner’s tenure in the ’60s, but she was considering leaving school to help her recently separated mother in Omaha. Werner would not hear of it. He helped line up part-time jobs to help pay tuition and made sure campus officials turned a blind eye when Hilb's mother moved into a vacant dorm room for three weeks. Her mom soon found her first job in a downtown Colorado Springs bookstore and both made it through the rough patch.
“Ray was wonderful to me,” said Hilb, now a Denver-area real estate broker. “I owe him so much.”
Some of Werner’s efforts went unnoticed by those who benefited most. Werner confirmed that he approached the members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity’s Gamma Delta chapter and told them “it was time” to admit their first African-American member in 1963.
“They rushed me pretty hard,” said student leader Raymond Dean Jones ’67, now a retired judge in Denver. “Ray is such a wonderful, heartfelt man. I am grateful to him for that.”
Every student on the small liberal arts campus knew of Werner, even if they never took a class from him. College trustee Bob Manning ’69 still meets with Werner to pick his brain.
“Ray was really holding our hands with the split from the WCHA (Western Collegiate Hockey Association) and when the SCAC (Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference) was imploding,” Manning said. “Ray was really helpful and helped guide my thinking. He definitely has more of an effect than anyone realizes. He has become a mentor to me.”
Werner’s lectures were a mix of managed discussion, unbridled enthusiasm, and ample preparation — all flavored by his effervescent personality.
“He was just splendid,” said Bob Knight ’67. “He had an incredible hold on the class. He pushed everyone to think. He was passionate and always thoroughly prepared. One better be prepared to keep up with him in class.”
The flexible style was intentional. “You have to make your lecture relevant to what is going on in the world to engage the students effectively,” Werner said. “I would have a concept to develop during each class, but if the students decided to take it on a tangent I let them, as long as we stayed relevant. Concepts can be learned in many ways.”
His energy never flagged for his subject. “Some teachers grow stale, but I do not believe in burnout,” he said. “If you are interested in what you’re teaching, you don’t burn out.”
His engagement extended into the students’ lives. As a World War II veteran, Werner was respected by former servicemen attending CC in the late 1940s and early 50s. He was the one they called if they partied too hard on the weekends and had their one call to make from jail, he said.
He made sure as many students as possible survived their stumbles to finish school and get the best, most well-rounded liberal arts education possible. He demanded much from them.
“I probably took as many art courses as economics,” said Hilb, who is involved in the Denver art community. “He always told me it cost as much to take 15 credits as 12. I always got my money’s worth.”
Werner's efforts to improve the quality of education for every CC student can be felt today. Once, after reading an economics major’s senior paper, he realized the student knew the concepts but could not write clearly enough to convey them. So he pushed through the notion that a senior thesis should be required to force students to learn how to write clearly. He tried the idea out in 1950. It succeeded, and the department soon grew a reputation for being demanding. The concept of a senior thesis/project requirement eventually spread campus-wide.
“You can blame me for it,” Werner said with pride and a smile.
Werner served as the debate coach and was co-founder with Juan Reid and Lew Worner of the Blue Key Honor Society. He was the editor of legal developments in marketing for the Journal of Marketing for more than 20 years, started the school’s interdisciplinary major in political economy, and published a number of articles and papers.
He also took on the role of conciliator during changing times, such as the 1960s or while the Block Plan was under consideration. Werner did not advocate the plan initially, feeling a semester’s worth of instructions could not be condensed into a few weeks, and spoke passionately against it. President Worner, his friend since they shared an instructors’ office in 1948, wanted a two-thirds majority vote among the faculty or he would not make the change. Werner remembers 61 percent were in favor, so he and sociology professor Van Shaw both stood up to make a motion for the vote to be unanimous.
“Van was recognized first so he started the motion and I seconded it,” Werner said. “It had been debated to death and thoroughly vetted. It was time to move on.”
Not surprisingly, he turned his energy toward adjusting his classes to the new format. It works, though he is still not a fan.
“It is wonderful for the students, but very hard on the professors,” he said. “Now, it is how the school sells itself.”
The successful academic always was a teacher first, a commitment that dates back, he said, to his time in the U.S. Army teaching illiterate draftees to read and write. The former Nebraska high school principal realized back then that a personal approach worked.
“All their life they were treated as dummies,” he said. “I talked to them as men and they responded.”
He was known for learning the name of every CC student in his classes. “That really means something when you’re 18 and away from home for the first time,” Werner said.
That personal touch and his skill as a lecturer eventually led to creation of the Ray O. Werner Award for Exemplary Teaching in the Liberal Arts. Werner remains interested in teaching, picking the brains of the honorees he meets at the award banquet.
“They’re all trying to impress him and he is trying to find out what makes them a good teacher,” Manning said. “He’s still sharp as a tack.”
Werner feels athletics plays a considerable role in the education CC provides. He fought efforts to disband Division I hockey, noting that the sport brings in students who otherwise might not be able to attend an expensive private school.
“He was a passionate defender of athletics, especially hockey,” said history professor emeritus Bill Hochman. “He made very strong arguments. I have always been a strong opponent of Division I athletics, but there was never any real hope of change with the alumni support behind hockey.”
Werner never had seen hockey in person until he drove to Colorado Springs from his native Nebraska with his new wife Donna over unpaved roads. “It sounded interesting on the radio,” he said.
His growing passion for the game, which was a citywide event in the 1950s, led him to become the school’s faculty representative in the former Western Intercollegiate Hockey League. Later, Werner became a charter representative to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which CC will leave for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference next spring. Werner was named to the league's Hall of Fame and received the WCHA’s Distinguished Service Award in 1986. In 1997, he was inducted into the CC Athletics Hall of Fame.
Werner helped more than just hockey, often running the football and basketball scoreboards, his son Brian Werner of Denver remembers. “We grew up around CC athletics,” Brian Werner said. “As a child I can remember running around Palmer Hall. CC was one big family then. It still is.”
Ray Werner’s interest in Tiger athletics continues today as more than 75 people can attest. He regularly sends out email updates on the hockey team, especially after home games, along with other CC sports news, economic analysis, and academic articles.
“I find out so much about the hockey team, I feel like I have been to every home game,” retired executive John R. Gibson ’60 said from his home in Las Vegas, Nev.
Werner received the Joni Brandner Memorial Award at the Tigers' team awards ceremony in May. The award, initiated in 2002, is presented annually to “individuals who have given their heart and soul through dedication to Tiger Hockey.”
“He was always a tremendous supporter of the program since my days as a student here and earlier,” head hockey coach Scott Owens ’79 said at the time. “He was very influential in the founding of the WCHA. He remains a great college hockey fan and program supporter.”
Werner’s reach extended beyond campus. He also made an effort to connect with the city of Colorado Springs and avoid the cultural separation of “town and gown” common in small cities with colleges. He held significant roles in a number of charitable organizations. He joined the Community Chest, which evolved into Pikes Peak United Way, where he served from 1964 to 1972, becoming president in 1970.
Werner also served on the Goodwill Industries board of directors from 1974-84 and the city utilities financial advisory board for many years. He also worked with the Chamber of Commerce, becoming president in 1979. In addition, he was a member of the city's charter review commission from 1974-78.
“The businessmen did not know what to make of a professor in their ranks,” Werner said, adding that he felt the college needed to be more involved in the community. “I had a hard time saying no.”
Everyone in Colorado Springs should know who Ray Werner is, if they do not already. The notoriety may fade in time but his effect as a teacher, mentor, and friend never will be forgotten by his former students.
“He really did shape my future,” said Bob Knight ’67, a Montana-based attorney. “He put me on the debate team and taught me the skills I would need to be a lawyer. He very much influenced the direction of my life from the get-go.”