MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — An art major meets a chemical engineer who would someday have 10 patents under his belt.
It may not sound like a traditional Hollywood romance, but it is the story of the new University of Minnesota president and his wife, who are now back in the state where he proposed three times.
WCCO-TV sat down with Eric and Karen Kaler for their first extensive interview recently. It was a fireside chat about their history at the university, his vision for the future and his strong opinions about big time sports.
With decorations on the tree and a fresh log on the fire, Eric and Karen Kaler look pretty comfortable at the President’s residence. But it’s been an adjustment.
“It’s more like a public house that’s semi-private,” said President Kaler, who is required by contract to live in and host events at Eastcliff, a majestic mansion built by the Brooks Family in 1922 and donated to the University in 1958.
“It is very lovely for entertaining,” said Eric Kaler. “We have lots of people over for a lot of the time, and when they go, we go upstairs. So it’s a convenient location in that sense.”
“People do say I’ve never been upstairs,” said Karen Kaler. “And I’m thinking I don’t know, do you invite people up to your bedroom? It just seems sort of awkward, and it just doesn’t seem like your home if people think they can go in your bedroom.”
Instead, Karen Kaler handles that problem by showing off a piece of Eastcliff’s history, showing off the upstairs by using a replica dollhouse originally used by the Brooks’ grandchildren.
The Kalers clearly relish Eastcliff’s history. As owners of two Spanish Water Dogs, Lida and Mo, they share house’s history with dogs now all the way back to the Brooks family’s dog, Rusty.
“There’s a little tombstone,” said Kaler. “Do you call them tombstones for dogs? Maybe it’s a dogstone. And a couple of his friends are laid to rest next to him.”
They also love the art pieces they picked from the extensive collection of the Weisman Art Museum, now called the WAM. Karen Kaler was an art major in college, so she took the lead.
“Karen picked out all of these,” said Eric. “I got a veto. I think I got a veto.”
“He had veto power,” said Karen, “But you didn’t really.”
“I didn’t exercise my veto,” said Eric.
“I just threw things he would like together,” said Karen.
When Kaler took office in July, it was a homecoming of sorts. He studied for his PHD at the University of Minnesota and proposed to Karen at Jax Cafe.
“For a graduate student, going to Jax Cafe was a big deal,” he said. “So it was very fancy. First place where I asked you to marry me.”
Karen finally said yes the third time around, and they’ll celebrate their 32nd anniversary later this month. They have two grown sons, Charlie and Sam, and now Eric is back at the university as its 16th President.
“Well, it’s hard to say no to your alma mater,” he said. “I mean this place was enormously influential on me as a young person, and the opportunity to come back to lead it, I was going to take that opportunity for sure.”
And the new President certainly isn’t shy. He’s had speeches and meetings all over campus, sharing his vision of excellence. Despite budget cuts at the Capitol and tuition increases for students, he plans to analyze the school department by department to make it even bigger and even better.
“The ones that are great we need to invest in,” he said. “The ones that are good but can be great we need to invest in. The ones that aren’t very good, and probably never be good, we need to step away from.”
He has similar standards for athletics. Sure, he’s an academic, but he’s also pragmatic. Big time sports get big time exposure, so the chemical engineer who’s about to secure his 10th patent sees football and basketball as opportunities to connect with the community.
“It’s incredibly important to our brand, and our public image,” he said. “Like it or not and there are plenty of people who don’t like it. I think you’re naive if you think it doesn’t matter.”