Dr. Kenneth Blehm: big words, big ideas, big legacy

Colorado State University associate dean and Environmental and Radiological Sciences professor Ken Blehm teaches ERHS 410 Environmental Health and Waste Management, April 12, 2016.

Good day, young colleagues.

If you ever took a class with Ken Blehm, you probably received an email or even a paper missive with that greeting. The memorandum might have contained a few words you didn’t recognize, possibly a stern warning, and usually some words of encouragement.

After a 37-year career in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Blehm, a professor of industrial hygiene and associate dean of academic and student affairs, will retire on May 31.

Colleagues young and old, within the college and across the CSU campus, agree on a few things about Blehm: his direct and erudite style, his “quirky” sense of humor, and his unflagging passion for undergraduate education.

“I would have to Google words that he used in class to figure out what they were. I thought they were made up at first, but sure enough every single one was real,” said Jeff Seligman, a May 2015 graduate who will start dental school in the fall.

He improved the vocabulary of his fellow academics as well. “Man, the words he used, you would have to look them up in a dictionary,” said Lisa Dysleski, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, and as College of Natural Sciences assistant dean of undergraduate programs, collaborated with Blehm on the Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Affairs.

Mitchell Brown graduated more than 10 years ago and now works as an environmental health specialist in Lakewood, Colo. Thanks to Blehm, he was not only prepared for his career, but still subscribes to a word-of-the-day.

“Dr. Blehm wanted to prepare us for working in the ‘real world.’ This meant sometimes learning big words, such as ‘concomitant’ and ‘promulgate,’” Brown said.

Passion for undergraduate education

Blehm promulgated an atmosphere of accountability and excellence in undergraduate education in a college best-known for training veterinarians. He viewed graduate research and undergraduate learning as concomitant challenges in a university setting.

“I saw the way other people would engage and have conversations with the graduate students, but they just lectured to the undergraduates, and I thought, ‘Why do we set two different standards?’ So we started doing things differently, and that fits with the land-grant university idea, to educate the people of the state of Colorado,” Blehm said.

During his tenure as dean of the college, Dr. Lance Perryman recognized Blehm’s affinity for undergraduate education and appointed him to the associate dean position in 2002.

Retirement Celebration

3:30-5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5, Lory Student Center, Ballroom D
Join us as we recognize Ken Blehm’s many contributions to the college and the university. In lieu of retirement gifts, he invites friends and colleagues to join him in donating to a newly established scholarship fund.

Kenneth D. Blehm and Barbara R. Blehm Scholarship

Ken and Barbara Blehm have established a scholarship to support undergraduate students in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. As first-generation college students from modest backgrounds, the Blehms recognize the value of hard work and individual merit, but also realize that success is never achieved without a helping hand. They hope that this award may be used to grow and succeed so that the recipient is in a position to willingly and enthusiastically pay the benefit forward.

“Dr. Blehm was absolutely committed to the success and well-being of the students,” Perryman said. “He wasn’t popular because he was easy, he was popular because he pushed them hard so they were ready for success.”

His insistence on asking more of undergrads, and the professors who teach them, paid off. In the first four years after Blehm began directing the undergraduate program, the students’ cumulative GPA rose nearly a whole grade point. Perryman also credits Blehm with increasing student diversity in undergrad and graduate ranks.

Blehm has championed undergraduate education in a college best-known for its veterinary program.

“In typical Ken fashion, he mother-henned those students, you know – get those chicks beneath the wings. He didn’t tell them things to make them feel good, he was telling them things to make them successful,” Perryman said.

In addition to his focus on education, Blehm viewed college work as preparation for professional work. He called students “colleagues” because he truly viewed them as potential co-workers. Dean Mark Stetter admires his work ethic and his dedication to student success.

“Ken has been an incredible advocate for students, individually and in clubs, for graduates and alums in industry. He worked tirelessly to ensure their success while they were here and as they move on into the work world,” Stetter said.

Like Stetter and Blehm’s current colleagues, former dean Perryman knew he could count on Blehm’s bluntness. “Sometimes people won’t be honest with the dean, but he was always honest with me. He would tell me what I needed to know, and 99 times out of 100 it was precisely what I needed to know.”

Janice Brown worked for three deans, including Perryman, as an executive assistant. She has taken reams of minutes in committee meetings and has seen several generations of academic leadership come and go.

“To me, Ken is the vision of the perfect professor. He is so driven by what he believes in, and he’s such a good mentor for students. He has a way with students that is almost like tough love,” she said. “I remember one time he was frustrated with an undergraduate, and he was very blunt with the student. The tact went away and he said, ‘I think I finally got through to that blockhead.’ He’s very engaged and involved with them. He will not give up on any kid.”

Can’t keep him down on the farm

The Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Spring 2013 Commencement Ceremony, May 18, 2013
As he retires, Blehm and his wife have established a new scholarship fund for undergraduates.

Blehm grew up on a farm in Greeley, raised by parents who valued learning but didn’t have the chance to complete 12th grade. “When I graduated from high school, I already had twice the formal education of both my parents together,” he said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Northern Colorado in 1973, Blehm worked as a feed lot operator and as a sanitarian for Larimer County, where he discovered the field of environmental health, the study of the chemical, biological and physical factors in our environment that affect human health. He came to CSU for a master’s degree in industrial hygiene and took a job with Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. in Baton Rouge, La.

When his wife, Barbara, took a job in northern Colorado, Blehm returned to CSU in 1979 as a research associate. From 1980 to ’82, he took a break to earn his Ph.D. in industrial hygiene from the University of Oklahoma, and returned to CSU as a research scientist and faculty member in 1983.

By 1990, he had become director of the Environmental Health undergraduate program in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

Blehm has received the CVMBS Outstanding Academic Advising Award for Undergraduate Education; the Environmental Health Student Association Outstanding Professor Award; the Milton M. Miller Award for Outstanding Environmental Health from the Colorado Environmental Health Association; and was appointed as a fellow of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Looking ahead

Kenneth Blehm, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, College of Biomedical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, February 1, 2011
Blehm models his trademark uniform: the turtleneck.

“His leadership was a role model for the whole campus, not only in advising but in outreach to students,” said Gaye Golter DiGregorio, executive director of the Center for Advising and Student Achievement. “Ken had a vision, and he was willing to do the work. He has made CSU a better place.”

As passionate and involved as he was in the college, Blehm isn’t looking back. He has spent the past year helping Sandra Quackenbush ease into her new role as associate dean. “He’s been really generous to me with his time in the transition, and I’m seeing the results of how he impacted things. He’s precise. He expects a lot of people because he expects a lot of himself,” she said.

In addition to his fondness for vocabulary words and blunt speech, Blehm’s sartorial style is a favorite memory of his students. In a tongue-in-cheek tribute, his colleagues on the college leadership team dressed in black turtlenecks, Blehm’s signature garment, for a recent meeting.

“I loved his turtlenecks! I always think of him when I see any turtleneck sweaters or shirts,” said Aleigha Mazeh, who works as an environmental health consultant in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Blehm was reluctant to celebrate his departure. He told his Environmental Health and Waste Management class that he “had hoped to sneak out like a cat after a mouse,” but he has embraced the idea that his colleagues want to mark his transition.

“I don’t want to spend the time celebrating what was. I am what was. I want people to take that energy and pay it forward. I’m not going to practice drive-by old-fartism,” he said. “I’m going to take the same advice I’ve been giving to freshmen for the last 35 years: Start slowly. My objective is to figure out how to run the rest of my life.”