Otterbein University Dean of Student Affairs Bob Gatti remembers taking a taxi ride with former Otterbein dean Joanne Van Sant through a major city, perhaps Chicago, years ago.
"In a 30 minute taxi ride, she had the taxi driver telling her his life story and his problems, and she was nudging him to do things about it," Gatti said.
As members of the university community remembered "Dean Van," who passed away at her Westerville home Monday, May 21 at the age of 87, it was her empathy for others and her insight into others that came out as a common theme.
"She had incredible empathy. That was probably one of the things that I learned most from her. She could zero in on an individual," Gatti said. "In a short period of time, (students) would be sharing their problems and issues, and she would help them navigate through that."
Van Sant came to then-Otterbein College in 1948 as an instructor in the women's physical education department. She was promoted to assistant professor, associate professor and then chairwoman of the department.
In 1952, Van Sant was named dean of women; in 1964, dean of students; and in 1968, vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
Van Sant officially retired from the university in 1992, but she continued to serve as a consultant, said university spokeswoman Jenny Hill. She continued to maintain office hours and devote as much time to the university as she was able to, Hill said.
"I regard her as one of the giants of Otterbein," said Tom Kerr, who served as Otterbein's president from 1971 to 1984. "Otterbein, over the years, has had a lot of faculty members that have served 30, even 40, years and made great contributions. Hers is one of the longest tenures in the history of the university. With that kind of leadership over that kind of period, there is a tremendous impact that a person has. ... Very few people have had that long of an impact."
Over the years, Van Sant was involved in many professional, nonprofit and community organizations, serving on the boards of most of them at one time or another.
"If she was going to work on something, she jumped into it, and you had to paddle fast to keep up," said Margaret Trent, a former student and friend of Van Sant's.
Jane Horn was a student at Otterbein when Van Sant joined the staff. The two ended up lifelong friends, and the image of Van Sant as active and involved is something that always has stuck with Horn.
"We always laughed about her when she first came to campus because she would rush from one soccer building to (another) building, and we would say she galloped," Horn said. "I don't know that she'd appreciate that, but that's just how we thought about her, always galloping across campus."
Van Sant's involvement helped her connect deeply to the Otterbein community and make lasting ties with students, Horn said.
"When she came here to teach and then went on to different offices, she so immersed herself in the life of the university and became a friend of so many people," Horn said. "I'm sure many people come back to campus because they wanted to see Dean Van."
Of everything Van Sant committed to Otterbein, it's her commitment to the students that left the largest mark, those who remembered her said.
"She always talked about how her students, our students, were special," Gatti said.
"Not only was she in this field at a time when there were not many women in senior management positions in higher education, but she also navigated Otterbein through the time of student unrest in the 1960s and 70s. ... We didn't have a lot of the issues that other schools had, and I think that was in large part because of the relationship Dean Van Sant had with the students. It wasn't a we-versus-them; it was a community."
Van Sant never forgot that students came first at Otterbein, Kerr said, and that legacy has lasted since her retirement.
"Students are really the No. 1 priority of the institution. She always thought of the impact of every decision on students first. She was a great student advocate," Kerr said. "The main mission of the university is students and the education of students. She never lost sight of that."
Joanne Van Sant at work at her desk as dean of students at Otterbein in the 1970s.