t has been 15 years since Jim and Rachel Votruba first made their way to our community, but it’s hard for me to remember a time when the pair wasn’t an integral part of Northern Kentucky. Their contributions to our community, both on and off the Northern Kentucky University campus, will last for generations.

Votruba’s retirement as NKU’s No. 1 is well-earned.

In the mid 1970s when I was considering where to attend college, Northern Kentucky University was … well … not even a university yet. During those years, NKU fought for each enrollment. Today, it gets nearly three applications for each open spot in the classroom.

The school known today as NKU was originally founded in 1948 as an extension campus for the University of Kentucky. Northern Kentuckians made their way to a small building in Park Hills to get a couple of core classes behind them before they made their way to Lexington. In 1968, following a massive effort by local politicians, it became its own college. It took a while, but university status followed in 1976.

In its early stages, Northern Kentucky University seemed to suffer the same identity crisis as the rest of our region — a shy step-child fighting with Frankfort for respect in the form of state funding. NKU’s growing pains were no different than those we had all suffered for years at the hands of state politicians who thought of Northern Kentucky as nothing more than a suburb of Cincinnati. Like the rest of us who went down state during the General Assembly, NKU leaders begged for peanuts while other universities around the state were eating steak.

Then in 1997, along came Dr. James Votruba — a Yankee from Michigan, for crying out loud — who started talking about how NKU could be something more. Most thought Votruba was more than a few bricks shy of a full load for espousing that we were entitled to our share. He was a mad man who clearly didn’t understand our martyr complex with Frankfort.

I’ll be damned if we didn’t listen and follow.

Consider the College of Informatics for a minute. Several years ago, none of us knew what “informatics” was until Jim Votruba went about convincing us that we couldn’t do without it. He was right, and the Griffin Center stands as a monument to Votruba’s vision and tenacity.

The Jim Votruba era at NKU will be remembered for many things — a dramatic jump in enrollment, an increase in academic standards, the move to Division 1, etc. But the greatest impact Jim Votruba made on NKU (and us) is in the way we think.

Jim Votruba made us understand that it is OK to believe in the exceptionalism of our region and to let others know it is time for us to lead the way.