Keeping up with Tony Kinkel is a challenge. The new president of Wichita Area Technical College and the National Center for Aviation Training walks fast, talks fast and thinks fast — all products of a man chasing a core lifetime goal: to create workplace opportunities for the "have-nots."
That mission is the product of an eclectic career — a civics teacher, basketball coach, 16-year Minnesota legislator and a man with a missionary zeal about the value of the community college system to society.
Kinkel, 50, a rural Minnesota native, comes to Wichita from Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado.
He holds a bachelor's degree in social sciences and a master's and doctorate in higher education administration.
Through it all, Kinkel's still coaching — this time, his team of vocational educators.
"I taught my first year and then I got elected to the Minnesota House when I was 23, and I realized that at some point I wasn't going to be in the Legislature forever," Kinkel said.
"So I had to decide if I wanted to go back into the classroom or do something else. I'd started teaching part-time at a community college, and I absolutely fell in love with the mission of the two-year school. So I wanted to be a part of leading that cause."
Kinkel has been dean of Northwest Technical College in Minnesota, state director of the Maryland community college system, chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, and president of Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs.
It was during his time in Maryland that Kinkel said the lure of his rural Minnesota roots drew him back to the Midwest.
He was driving to church one Sunday on the beltway, "and it was six lanes driving wall to wall, and you kind of come to the conclusion as a small-town boy that I didn't want to raise my children in that East Coast fast-paced traffic," he said.
Kinkel said he couldn't pass up the chance to help advance planemaking at WATC.
"The only manufacturing left in the United States in which we dominate the world is aviation," he said. "We've lost almost everything else. And so the thrill to be a part of the one industry left where we're still king of the hill — and we need to stay there — proved an irresistible challenge for me professionally."
Kinkel is up-front about one of his biggest challenges: stabilizing WATC's finances, where he said headway is being made.
"We have crippling debt," he said. "Some necessary, some the product of some bad decisions."
The balance sheet, though, cannot detract from the school's commitments, Kinkel said — to educating its students and to the staff members who deliver that education.
Toward that end, Kinkel said he's committed to avoiding the month-long furloughs that hit the school staff last year.
"Does anyone really want to hear that they're not going to be able to pay their mortgage for a month?" he asked.
That broad perspective attracted Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton and WATC board member Lyndon Wells to Kinkel.
"For me, I think Tony brings a fresh look at what we're trying to do, a wealth of experience in academia and also some legislative experience on how to get things done through that system," Norton said.
"The academic system in Kansas is tied to the political system, and we need to understand how to make that work. Tony brings great perspective there."
Wells said Kinkel represents the enthusiasm the school needs.
"The progress made in the school up to this point was significant, and we've needed someone to pick it up and carry it to the next level."
Tearing down barriers
Connecting young people, many in their last chance for higher education, with workplace opportunities drives Kinkel.
"The core of what I believe in is I want the have-nots to have the opportunity to have more. Don't give it to them. Help them earn it," Kinkel said.
"Fact is, the haves of the world don't necessarily want the have-nots of the world to have more, and they put up barriers. So the core of what I believe in is tearing down those walls."
It's a core belief that binds Kinkel to his technical college work.
"I am intoxicated, frankly, by taking those lives in this setting, finding out their hopes and dreams and getting them there," he said.
"It's easy to be president of Harvard University. You can't screw that up. But, boy, if you don't have great leadership at these two-year schools, you have so many lives in the palm of your hand.
"If you don't make it here, where else do you go? We have to get it done right here. I want to be a part of those students' lives."