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Job, city are new, but students help him feel at home

People-oriented leader takes helm of Church's junior college in Idaho

Steven Don Bennion moved to Rexburg, Idaho, a few weeks ago, but the new president of Ricks College already feels at home because college students are like family to him.

As a youth growing up on a small farm outside Salt Lake City, he constantly worked on service projects, went to socials or ate dinner with college students. His father, Dr. Lowell L. Bennion, loved the students he taught as director of the University of Utah Institute of Religion. He founded and taught at the institute for 28 years, 1934-1962, and helped create what was then an LDS student fraternity, Lamba Delta Sigma, in 1936."Father and Mother had many college students in our home," related the new Ricks president.

This tradition has been carried on by Pres. Bennion and his wife, Marjorie, who have often entertained students in their home. For seven years, 1982-1989, Pres. Bennion presided over Snow College, a junior college with about 1,500 students, in Ephraim, Utah. He also served in the stake presidency there. Now as they assume the same position at the Church-owned junior college here, both hope to continue their long, treasured association with students.

"There is a feeling of enthusiasm and excitement about being around students," Sister Bennion said. "When I think about students today - so intelligent, so excited about life - I look forward to meeting them. It really is enriching to have students in your home."

Maybe Pres. Bennion's early opportunities to work and play side-by-side with LDS college students helped him develop what friends and family call his people-oriented personality.

Bishop Daniel P. Howells of the Potomac (Md.) North Ward has known Pres. Bennion since they were young children. They went to high school together, endured basic training in the army together and served in the same mission. He said Pres. Bennion's interest in people is genuine and sincere.

When young Steve ran for student body president of Olympus High School, he was a natural politician. He could talk to students in any class and make them feel important. After the election, Bishop Howell said he tried to persuade Pres. Bennion to stop being so friendly.

"Sometimes I would get annoyed because he would spend so much time talking to people," Bishop Howells remembered.

Sister Bennion said the college president can strike up a conversation with anybody. "He'll wave to people in cars he doesn't even know - which can be embarrassing for the rest of us," she exclaimed.

This warmth of character is immediately apparent in Pres. Bennion's friendly smile and soothing voice. Maybe he should have pursued his earlier goals to become a politician.

But Pres. Bennion's trademark, said friends and family, is his laughter. He has an infectious laugh that soon spreads throughout the room even if the other people didn't hear what caused his joy.

"I've had people say they can always tell when Steve is in an audience," said his wife. "He just enjoys life, enjoys people and enjoys a good laugh."

"He's a lot of fun, but he's not perfect," added his 17-year-old son and running partner, Mark. "His facial expressions - a lot of the time - have really cracked me up."

Mark said his father also has been there whenever he has needed him. One time Mark was hit by a golf club and needed stitches. He still remembers his father sitting by him holding his hand while the doctor put in the stitches.

Pres. Bennion's memories of his father reflect real life lessons in service and hard work. Lowell Bennion bought a small farm so his sons could learn how to work. Pres. Bennion remembers milking a cow, caring for animals and working in the garden and orchard.

In school - whether in the classroom or on the football field - he also worked hard. Despite his size, 5-feet-10, he did well in football. Bishop Howells, quarterback on the high school team, said his friend Steve played halfback. He had a compact build and "a lot of guts," remembered Bishop Howells. "All you had to do was throw the ball near him and he would trap it into his body."

During the summers of his teenage years, Steve Bennion worked on a farm in the Teton Valley near the Idaho-Wyoming border. While carrying irrigation pipes, he often greeted the sunrise and watched the sunsets. The farm was owned by Grant and Sharoll Wilson who were more like an older brother and sister than employers to Steve. He spent many a night discussing politics, dating, religion and many other topics.

After high school, Pres. Bennion served in the Army, where his testimony of the gospel matured. While serving at Fort Gordon, Ga., he spent one week reading the Book of Mormon from cover to cover for the first time in his life. He gained a strong testimony of its truthfulness. He also helped teach the gospel to two fellow soldiers who were later baptized. In the Church he taught the gospel doctrine class in the Augusta (Ga.) Ward.

He stepped from the military into the mission field. He and Bishop Howells were called to serve in the Scottish Irish Mission.

"He baptized a lot of people because he was so in tune with the Spirit," Bishop Howells said.

He also put in the hours, Bishop Howells noted. On one occasion, Elder Bennion and his companion, James Pingree, returned home exhausted. Elder Pingree, the junior companion, was amazed at how long Elder Bennion prayed that night - nearly 30 minutes. "Finally, he realized Steve had fallen asleep," Bishop Howells said.

Pres. Bennion returned from his mission and entered the University of Utah, studying political science and history. He married Majorie Hopkins of Vernal, Utah, in 1963. They met when they were 11 years old and started dating when his aunt played matchmaker. They have five children, one deceased.

With his bachelor's degree from the University of Utah, Pres. Bennion headed east to Cornell University. He earned a master's of public administration. For the first 12 years of his career, he worked in Wisconsin. Ten years were spent in educational and budget planning for the University of Wisconsin System of Higher Education. During this period, he earned a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Wisconsin. He also served as a bishop.

In 1979 a former missionary companion notified him of an opening in the Church Welfare Department. He was hired and served a little more than two years in the job before becoming associate commissioner for planning in the Utah Board of Regents office. After only a year, he was sought out by a member of the search committee looking for a new president of Snow College. He soon was selected for the job.

As president of Snow, he pushed for better salaries for teachers and worked to bring more students to the small junior college. During his seven-year tenure, enrollment increased at the school by several hundred students.

At Ricks College Pres. Bennion hopes to enhance an environment in which the student with high honors and the student with learning disabilities will be challenged and thrive.

"The open-door spirit of the college needs to be maintained even though enrollment has been limited and set at 7,500 daytime students," he said.

Pres. Bennion expects the job to be demanding, but refuses to lose sight of the reason colleges exist.

"The bottom line is that the institution is there to serve the students," he declared. And as far as Pres. Bennion is concerned, that's his purpose as president, too.

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