When Bill Huston was a Navy officer in Vietnam, he didn’t live on a ship and eat hot meals in the officers’ mess. Huston navigated a patrol boat through the serpentine waterways of the Mekong Delta and gathered intelligence on enemy activity. Hiding in dense jungle foliage, Huston’s team intercepted enemy radio messages, transmitted in Morse code. The officer listened in to coded enemy messages and translated for a fellow sailor, who transcribed the information. The intelligence was relayed to ground units in the area and used in tactical planning. The enemy was so close, sometimes, Huston said, he could hear sandaled feet trampling through the undergrowth.
The future college president didn’t stay in the Navy after the war. He transferred to the Coast Guard and rose in rank to Captain, the equivalent of a full colonel in the Army. Far from the Mekong Delta, Huston managed traffic, safety and rescue on one of the busiest waterways in the world - the Mississippi, Ohio and Kanawha river system.
Working behind enemy lines in Vietnam took courage and competence. Commanding a huge Coast Guard unit required exceptional management skills. All those talents would come in handy when Huston took over as the first male president of St. Catharine College in 1996.
During the Vietnam vet’s tenure as president, St. Catharine College has seen remarkable growth. The college started granting four-year degrees and increased enrollment. Major construction projects on campus include a new health sciences building. Huston issued a long-term plan calling for enrollment of 2,000 students by 2020.
Based on current trends, Huston is optimistic.
“We’ve been very blessed,” he said. “In the 16 years that I’ve been here, we’ve had an increase in enrollment in, probably, 13 or 14 of the 16. Last year, we had a drop in enrollment. We dropped about 10-percent. It was the first year during the five years of the recession, that we actually had a drop. Sometimes, it takes the recession a little longer to hit locally.
“We had kind of the perfect storm. We had more kids who were affected in one sense by the recession – maybe one parent was laid off or something. Also last summer, all three local plants were hiring - both Toyotomi and INOAC and TG Kentucky over in Lebanon – a large plant. So, a lot of kids had an option of going to work and making $10 to $14 an hour, right out of high school. To some kids, that’s a car payment. You know, ‘I can get my first car.’
“Then there was a lot of negative national publicity. Newsweek ran about four straight weeks of major articles about whether a college degree is worth the expense involved and ‘are there jobs after you get the degree?’
“So, there were three big factors that were swirling at that time. I think all of that, to some degree, affected enrollment. But we had, the year before, plus 11 [percent]. We had plus 13, plus 10. So, we had double digit increases. From Vision 2001 and Beyond, our huge growth plan, I’m very pleased with the increase in enrollment and we’ve gone from my first year, when we had about 40 graduates, to last year, when we had 161. Every year, we break a record. Every year, we have more graduates.”
Huston said the college plans to expand its academic offerings based on the needs of the economy.
“We’re going to continue to look at different opportunities out in the workplace, that are not being met,” he said. “Our strengths, up until now have been those areas that were in high demand, but there were no training programs to prepare kids. I’ve always thought that when a student graduates from St. Catharine, they should have a degree and the tools to go right to work. Our students go to work. Last year, I think we had 33 or 35 students who went to work in that many different hospitals.”
Funding the college’s growth plan is the president’s most daunting challenge.
“Finances has always got to be number one,” he said. “When I came here and developed a vision for what I wanted us to pursue, I thought our biggest challenge would be attracting qualified personnel – the Ph.D.’s that we needed and the expertise that we needed. That’s been rather refreshing. We’ve gotten quality people.”
Huston said the area’s rural nature, close proximity to urban amenities and reasonable cost of living had been advantageous to recruiting good people.
The Navy vet said he wants St. Catharine to be an affordable option for students and parents on a budget.
“Last year, we were one of two colleges in the State of Kentucky – and there’s over 40 – that had zero increase in tuition and zero increase in room and board, even though food went up,” he said. “We just wanted to hold the line for a year. We redesigned ourselves internally and we came up with cost saving measures, internally. We did some restructuring. I’m not saying that I can do this every year, but we are very much aware that it’s expensive to go to college. We’re going to do everything humanly possible to keep our costs reasonable.”
Community support has been vital to the college’s growth.
“Nothing ever would have been possible out here, as far as any of our growth or any of our expansion, without their support,” said Huston. “I’m as indebted to them today as I was in 1997, when they first got onboard with a vision plan.
“Springfield State Bank was recognized by the Kentucky Banking Association as the top bank in the State of Kentucky to partner with their local college. You have Berea College down here, with an endowment of over a billion dollars, and U.K. and U. of L. with tens of millions of dollars and local banks and all that. And Springfield State was recognized as the top bank in the state.
“I’m very humbled every day I come to work and every day I drive home for the support this community’s given.”