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Education enhanced: Alum, husband giving $1.5 million to UW-Stout to foster cross-disciplinary learning

Their careers in library science, engineering/law in Michigan showed them the importance of problem-solving, collaboration

By Jerry Poling, UW Stout

When she studied home economics education at Stout State College, Sharon Balius learned about a variety of professions — health, nutrition, economics, apparel design, art, child development and more. She began to see the world in a whole new way.

Balius also worked part time her senior year at the campus library, further expanding her curiosity about the world around her. It changed her career path. After graduating in 1962, she earned a master’s degree in library science in 1972 from the University of Michigan and worked for 35 years in the vast University Libraries system.

Sharon and Lou Balius of Ann Arbor, Mich., have pledged a $1.5 million estate gift to UW-Stout to create a cross-disciplinary class. Sharon is a 1962 Stout State College graduate. / Contributed photo

Now retired, Sharon Hafeman Balius and her husband, Lou Balius, of Ann Arbor, Mich., have made a $1.5 million estate gift to University of Wisconsin-Stout to spark curiosity and cross-disciplinary learning in new generations of college students and to support faculty.

“I feel very strongly that, when I look back at Stout, I had a wonderful experience,” Sharon said. “I realize how much I learned and am very grateful for it.”

Their gift, through Stout University Foundation, will create the Sharon Hafeman Balius and Louis Balius Distinguished Co-Professor in Cross-Disciplinary Applied Learning. Professors from two disciplines will apply for funding to co-teach a class designed to solve a real-world problem for an industry partner. The class, one or two semesters, also would foster entrepreneurial learning.

At Michigan, Sharon’s experience in the Engineering Libraries provided an opportunity to work with the earliest IBM and Apple personal computers available to schools. That quickly led to collaborations between engineering and library science students, and engineering and medical students.

When an engineering professor became dean of the School of Library Science, he pursued collaboration on many levels. The school is now the School of Information “I began to see this type of collaboration is very productive,” she said.

She also learned, like at Stout, to synthesize information from multiple sources to do her job.

Lou earned degrees in disparate fields — engineering, finance and law — but said he used them simultaneously in his career.

With their educational and professional experiences, Sharon and Lou value UW-Stout’s hands-on, polytechnic approach to education and want to see that reinforced through the professorship.

“Stout enforced in my life the ability to think creatively, problem-solve and be efficient in what I did. All the classes were designed that way,” Sharon said. “Those skills were the fundamentals of my career.”

By including a real-world student project in the co-professorship, Sharon and Lou want to leverage UW-Stout’s strong connections to business and industry. In 2021-22, for example, a co-taught class involving packaging and graphic design students was built around developing product prototypes for Great Northern Corp.

At Stout, Sharon had a student-teaching experience. At Michigan, Lou had a Buick-sponsored co-op at the General Motors Institute.

Along with enhancing students’ education, the co-professorship is designed to energize experienced faculty with a new challenge. “The bones of a college are the faculty. Faculty need to be refreshed. Everything is moving so fast,” Sharon said.

Katharine Reed, vice chancellor for University Advancement and Alumni Relations, thanked Sharon and Lou.

“Their generosity and investment in cross-disciplinary applied learning will truly make a meaningful difference at Stout,” Reed said. “Classes designed to solve real-world problems with industry partners perfectly capture the polytechnic advantage. UW-Stout and the Stout University Foundation are incredibly grateful for the Balius's foresight and gift.”

Education embedded in their lives

At Stout, Sharon initially was interested in teaching because, “I had so many interests in so many areas.”

Her varied university classes fed those interests, and so did the library, which became her home away from home. “I loved the library. I realized I would love to work in a place like that.”

The library where she studied and worked is now part of the Vocational Rehabilitation Building complex. When it opened in 1954, it was the first stand-alone library in school history.

A native of Milwaukee, she grew up in Crystal Falls, Mich., in the Upper Peninsula. The library was one of the town centers. It was open on Friday nights because people would stop by when they came into town for shopping and a fish dinner.

At Michigan’s library, Sharon worked with collections in transportation history, some manuscripts dating to the 1500s, and became assistant head of the Engineering Transportation libraries, which had more than 600,000 volumes spread out over two facilities.

“Every day I was using problem-solving skills,” she said, which included working with students and faculty and managing staff.

After 25 years, she moved to the Graduate Library and oversaw the conversion of 15,000 journals and periodicals to online access, then became head of University Library’s Monograph Acquisitions Department, which processed more than 60,000 new print materials a year.

Sharon and Lou became acquainted at a University of Michigan concert series. Their season tickets happened to be next to each other. “One of the advantages of being at a large academic institution is experiencing the broad range of programs offered, from Saturday Physics lectures, to learning from a notable physician, to having Wynton Marsalis on campus for a semester,” Sharon said.

Lou earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1959 from General Motors Institute followed by an M.B.A. in finance from the University of Michigan in 1964. He held various engineering and management positions at General Motors and later at Ford.

Later, he became vice president of General Steel Industries for its Simplicity Engineering subsidiary in Durand, Michigan. In 1971 he became vice president of Champion Enterprises Inc., a large producer of mobile homes, motor homes, travel trailers and buses. While serving as vice president at Champion, he became an attorney, graduating from the University of Detroit in 1983 with a J.D.

For the remainder of his time at Champion he served as both vice president and general counsel. In 1999, he left Champion and started his private practice as a defense attorney for the automobile industry.

Meeting JFK at Stout

Sharon has many positive memories of Stout State College, which had about 1,600 students in 1960.

“I loved every one of my teachers,” she said.

She lived in Eichelberger Hall, the historic Louis Smith Tainter House that has become the home of Stout University Foundation. “I often envisioned how it might have looked like when a family lived in it and was thrilled to see it restored in 1987,” she said.

She also lived in the new Bertha Tainter Hall, now Jeter-Tainter-Callahan.

One of Sharon’s favorite campus memories is meeting John F. Kennedy when he made a campaign stop at the college before the Wisconsin primary in 1960. He spoke in Harvey Hall Theatre.

She took notes on his speech. Afterward, Kennedy saw the notes and complimented her. Then, he signed them.

Sharon donated the notes to University Archives, which is part of the new library at UW-Stout, the Robert S. Swanson Library and Learning Center.

Jackie Kennedy accompanied John at UW-Stout. “I remember that there was a far more infamous event of a fraternity pledge measuring Jackie Kennedy’s waist!” Sharon said.

John F. Kennedy greets students and staff during his 1960 visit to UW-Stout. Jackie Kennedy is at lower right. / UW-Stout

Inspired by learning and doing

Despite living in Ann Arbor and Colorado, Sharon served on a program advisory committee for the School of Education at UW-Stout. She also returned to campus in 2012 for her 50th class reunion.

Sharon and Lou previously owned a home in Vail, Colo., for 21 years where they enjoyed downhill skiing. Sharon also became a Colorado Master Gardener. She was on the board for the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail and trained other gardeners in the special care of high-altitude alpine plants.

She also created a library for the Alpine Gardens. She gathered 700-plus books and journals from offices and storage facilities and cataloged them through the Vail Public Library online system.

Sharon became interested in early Tudor Renaissance clothing design and created many costumes for adults and children. She was amazed how quickly the techniques she learned at Stout came back as she created authentic costuming for the Michigan Renaissance Festival.

After retiring, she worked for several years at visitor information centers for the town of Vail and for Vail Resort’s Beaver Creek facility, which she said was similar to being a reference librarian because she helped people solve problems.

One of the many subjects Sharon and Lou are currently studying is astrophysics of the sun. “The joy in life is learning,” Sharon said.

UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes. Learn more via the FOCUS2030 strategic plan.


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