Pursue dreams, give back; Distinguished Alumni Award speakers advise today’s students

It might have been hard, when the late Mike Morrison was in grade school, to pick him as a future college president.

He was not an exemplary student. In the fifth grade, his teacher noticed how much he struggled with reading.

She took matters in hand and provided special instruction; by the end of the school year, he was reading at a fifth-grade level.

It might be a success story heard in many student careers — but in the case of Morrison, one of two 2017 Distinguished Alumni selections at Austin High School, it established an early awareness of how educators could impact student lives.

Morrison, from the class of 1964 and fellow selection Dr. Kurt Potach, class of 1972, were honored Thursday during the 16th annual Distinguished Alumni Awards student assembly at AHS.  On hand to accept Morrison’s posthumous award was his wife, Pat.

The awards are given annually by the Austin High School Alumni and Friends Association.

“He would have been truly humbled” by the award, Pat Morrison told the students, although “the path was not always easy.”

Mike Morrison languished in high school; by the time he got to Austin Community College, however, he was inspired by instructors who ignited his passion for education, “and his thirst for knowledge was born,” she said.

He taught middle school students in Michigan, then at the community college level in North Dakota. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees to advance to community college administration in Mason City, Iowa. He retired as president of the North Iowa Area Community College there in 2008. Morrison died in 2015.

“His primary concern was always his students,” she said, and enabling teachers to provide the best instruction for their students.

“He recognized the potential in everyone,” she said, and treated everyone “with respect and encouragement.”

Pat Morrison speaking on behalf of her husband Michael Morrison, one of this year’s Austin High School distinquished alumni. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

He became a fierce advocate, she said, of the community college system and worked with many school districts surrounding Mason City to establish career “hubs” that partnered NIACC vocational instruction with high school students in various fields.

He served on a number of state and national boards and organizations; through all his efforts, “he was obsessed with fact and truth” that made him a lifelong learner.

Being passionate about your life’s work, pursuing your dream and giving back to the community were messages repeated by the honorees.

Potach, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, established his dental practice here in 1982. He has served on the board of the YMCA for the past 30 years and has been a volunteer hockey coach. He has served as a volunteer in mission to provide dental care in Honduras.

Dr. Kurt Potach, one of this year’s Austin High School Distinguished Alumni, speaks on Thursday to today’s students.
Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Directly to the students in the audience, he said: “Your teachers, administrators, support staff — all of them are one hundred percent on board for you … they’re pouring everything they have into you guys. You have so many options that lie ahead” because of that dedication.

He urged students to know the difference between pursuing happiness — a fleeting thing — and the joy of purpose, that gives an inner peace, “that feeling that you are always doing the right thing.”

“There is nothing that guarantees we will always be happy,” he said. “But we have the awesome opportunity to pursue goals and follow your dream; don’t hold back. Challenge yourself.”

One of his largest life lessons came in one of his darkest moments — losing his young son, Karl, to cancer. After his death, his family established the Karl R. Potach Foundation. It raises funds for cancer research through the annual golf tournament held in Karl’s name. It has raised more than $1 million since is was established.

In 2012, the Potach family and friends funded the Karl R. Potach Pediatric Clinic at the Mayo Clinic Health System campus in Austin to serve area youth.

Karl taught him, he said, about selflessness. During his son’s three-year battle with his illness, “Not once did he say, ‘Why me?’ He was always concerned about the other little kids he saw “who were also ill. “It was a powerful, powerful witness.”

He gave students “an assignment.”

“Try and find every teacher, administrator, who contributed to your education, find them and tell them ‘Thank you.’ Pursue your dream … and take every opportunity to lend a helping hand, that joy of purpose. It will nourish your heart and it will nourish your soul.”

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