Stories with Purpose

Charles Erekson spent more than 30 years on the Mission campus, sharing stories and purpose with SCU as he worked his way from the Office of Student Affairs to the Provost’s Office.

It’s hard to say if Charles Erekson, PhD told stories or created meaningful fables, sans talking animals, always with morals to guide the listener.

“What we do today has an impact on tomorrow” is a lesson that Charlie brought home through his stories, says Ed Ryan, vice provost for planning and institutional effectiveness. “Charlie would use stories to explain the past, how we got where we are, and where we could be going.”

He seemed to have a story for most occasions—turning tales of his Texas youth shaped by sports, including pitching on the same team as MLB Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, into parables applicable to problems he worked on as SCU dean of students or, later, as senior advisor to the provost. Despite his official title, he was referred to around campus as the Dean of Storytelling.

“I bet I thought he shared 500 stories with me; he probably shared 1,000,” says Matt Cameron, assistant vice provost for student life.

Charles Erekson
Charles and Sue Erekson with their grandchildren on the Mission campus. / Image courtesy Amy Erekson Varga.

In fact, Cameron had heard of the legend of Charlie long before he met the man. Both attended the same graduate program at Oregon State University and held the same fellowship ten years apart. A method of collecting student fees for events and student organizations that Cameron used in those days had actually been created by Charlie in one of his first jobs in higher education years earlier.

There are many such connections, like a winding epic of a story, that Charlie made through his life. “So much serendipity,” Cameron says—much of it driven by Charlie’s desire to make connections everywhere he went. When Cameron arrived on campus, he says Charlie took him under his wing professionally and personally, and brought him to watch high school football in Los Gatos every Friday.

By the time Cameron made his way to SCU, Charlie, his wife Sue, and their daughter, Amy, were established in the community.

Santa Clara seemed like a perfect fit for the family from the moment they arrived in the early 1980s. The first two years they spent in the Bay Area, the Ereksons lived just off campus, which helped embed them in the local community.  Amy would ride her bike to the Mission and watch weddings from the back row on the weekends.

Here, Charlie found a place where the values—forming adults of competence, conscience, and compassion—fit his own Methodist upbringing and Texas Christian University education.

“That is part of why he stayed so long,” daughter Amy Erekson Varga MA ’06  says. “Santa Clara is a place where the institution’s values reflected his.”

“Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child” was Charlie’s motto in life, both at work, home, and the blurry space in-between, Amy says. Growing up, she was always welcomed in her father’s office. She’d often find students there, too. Charlie set out to teach each of those Broncos and Amy that they could handle what came their way.

“He wanted them to know that they could walk life’s path on their own, they should trust themselves, and they are empowered to face life’s challenges,” she says.

That’s how Ed Ryan, the vice provost, first met Charlie. As a student worker in Benson, he noticed that Charlie went out of his way to meet student workers and to share stories with little slices of life lessons. Decades later, at Charlie’s retirement party in 2014, three current students recalled similar memories.

It was Charlie’s turn to hear stories from all of the connections he’d made at SCU.

“The stories they shared could have been my own,” said Ryan. “There are generations of SCU students impacted by him. He took every opportunity he had to teach and listen.” Today, Ed works from Charlie’s old office in the Walsh Administration Building.

The lessons Charlie taught will reverberate for years to come.

Charlie hired Ryan and Cameron and many more who help shape the life of the University and the lives of its students. He pushed for the University’s connected feel, believing that the schools should be made into neighborhoods on campus. And, Charlie could see potential outcomes—potential plotlines in the world—that drove him to create and strengthen a faculty and staff housing program.

He also made or enforced some controversial decisions—supporting former President Paul Locatelli, S.J. in his decision to end the football program, backing the removal of a fraternity that created a racist and sexist newsletter, and as the student-facing representative of the administration that wanted to move the Multicultural Center to new offices that students felt were less generous. But through it all, he explained the how and why behind the decisions. And he listened, gathering more anecdotes from which he could shape future lessons.

In February 2021, Charlie was diagnosed with cancer. When it became clear by March that things were not going well, Amy reached out to her dad’s beloved SCU network to let them know.

Cameron arranged for people to send him letters with messages of appreciation they wanted to share. He plotted with SCU colleagues and alumni to make sure all of the mail would arrive around the same time—each postcard and letter dropped off just before Charlie started chemotherapy.

By the time they arrived, he was not strong enough to read, so Amy read the messages to him. It was Charlie’s turn to hear stories from all of the connections he’d made at SCU.

He died on April 8, 2021. His wife of 52 years, Sue, and daughter Amy were at his side.