Ron Withem remembered as 'a great public servant'

by Melissa Lee, University of Nebraska | June 01, 2020

Image with caption: Ron Withem

Ron Withem

Ron Withem, a longtime lobbyist for the University of Nebraska system who was a key architect of numerous major legislative initiatives that benefited the NU campuses, died Thursday, May 28, at his Papillion home following an illness. News of Withem's death was shared by NU System President Ted Carter.

"I never had the pleasure of meeting Ron personally, but evidence of his impact on the University of Nebraska and our state is everywhere," Carter said. "He clearly had a deep and personal recognition of the value of education, and his unique gift for building trusted relationships with our elected leaders will benefit students for generations to come.

"Those who knew him will remember Ron as a great public servant, a brilliant political mind and a beloved friend. The University of Nebraska is a more affordable, accessible and excellent institution thanks to his service. Nebraska has lost a great one."

UNMC and University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., said Withem's commitment to education never wavered.

"The University of Nebraska system has evolved greatly, and Ron Withem's influence on that growth cannot be underestimated," Dr. Gold said. "He was a true champion of education, and Ron's devotion to the advancement education throughout his career improved the lives of thousands of students every year and countless alumni throughout Nebraska. We will miss him."

Withem -- a champion of education from the early days of his career -- was a history teacher before he entered politics. He served in the Nebraska Legislature for 14 years, chairing the education committee and serving as Speaker from 1993 to 1996.

"Ron was a friend and colleague," said Bob Bartee, vice chancellor of external relations at UNO and UNMC. "Whether as a member of the Legislature or the university community, Ron was committed to improving education at all levels. He taught me many lessons in how to influence public policy. My wife Helen and I, our hearts go out to Diane, their children, and his entire family."

Withem joined the University of Nebraska's Central Administration office in 1997, serving as director of governmental relations for 20 years. As the NU system's chief legislative officer, he helped steward a number of successful partnerships with the state, including:

  • The Building a Healthier Nebraska initiative, which resulted in critical state investments in the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at UNMC, the Health Science Education Complex on the UNK campus, the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center at UNL, and a new home for the UNMC College of Nursing's Lincoln division.
  • The relocation of the Nebraska State Fair from Lincoln to Grand Island that paved the way for development of Nebraska Innovation Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • An affordability compact that froze tuition for resident students across the NU system for two years.
  • Multiple deferred maintenance packages that have helped protect valuable university facilities.

In 2013, Withem was the recipient of the Marvin D. "Swede" Johnson Achievement Award, a national honor recognizing extraordinary achievement in higher education advocacy.

He retired in 2017. In celebrating Withem's tenure at the university, the Board of Regents thanked him for "dedicating his life to public service, using each role as an opportunity to impact the lives of students and make Nebraska a better place."

Withem is survived by his wife, Diane, and children Suzanne and Justin. A celebration of life is being planned.


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Carrie Helmberger
June 01, 2020 at 11:40 AM

Ron was such a kind person. He will be missed.

Tom O’Connor
June 01, 2020 at 8:24 AM

Ron was truly an all-star. Loved his sense of humor.

Jennifer Larsen, MD
June 01, 2020 at 8:03 AM

Ron was passionate about the University of Nebraska and higher education among all other kinds of education, and worked tirelessly for it. He also believed in the legislative process--that it was the best way to hear from Nebraska's citizens to make the state the best it can be. I enjoyed working with him, and we will all miss him.

Catherine Mello
June 01, 2020 at 8:03 AM

Simply put - a legend. He will be greatly missed.

Howard E. Gendelman
June 01, 2020 at 6:25 AM

A force of justice and of truth he will always be remembered for the good he brought to the many.