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U-Mary president to retire after more than 30 years

BISMARCK -- Sister Thomas Welder, University of Mary's president for the past 30 years, will step down next year.

News of Welder's upcoming retirement came Wednesday from Martin White, chairman of the university's board of trustees.

"Sister Thomas has graced us with her wisdom, her spirit, her Benedictine principals...Most of all, however, she has graced us with her grace...a true servant leader," White told those assembled for the announcement. He said it was "difficult to see someone who has done so much for so many move away" to a different phase of her life.

Sister Welder herself was not at the announcement. She later issued a prepared statement saying she felt a "deep sense of gratitude" as she reflects on "the many opportunities that have been afforded to me."

She said playing a role in the growth and development of the school helped carry forward the vision of the Sisters of Annunciation Monastery "has been a unique and rewarding experience." She will continue to play a role helping the university after a new president begins work, she and White said.

Sister Welder turned 68 last month. She will retire June 30, 2009, and a new president will have been chosen who will begin working immediately, White said. She will be involved in the search process, he said.

Sister Welder was named the college's fifth president in 1978. She has worked there since 1963. She is believed to be the longest currently serving woman college president in the nation and hers is the second-longest woman's tenure as a college president since that of Sister Majella Berg, Marymount University in Virginia, 1960-93, U-Mary's announcement said.

She is a native of Bismarck, attended the College of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, Minn.; graduated from the College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minn., and earned a master's degree in music from Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. She has been a member for nearly 50 years of the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation, which started the college as a two-year school in 1955 on the grounds of its monastery overlooking Apple Creek south of Bismarck. It became a four-year degree-granting institution in 1959.

During her tenure as president, the college has grown from 925 students to 3,000 and changed its name from Mary College to the University of Mary in 1986. It now offers 44 undergraduate majors, masters' degrees in business administration, counseling, education, management, nursing, occupational therapy and project management, as well as a doctorate in physical therapy.

U-Mary's adult learning program now has 16 physical sites, including in Fargo and Grand Forks and as far away as Missouri and Arizona, and boasts world-wide on-line access, university officials said.

Gov. John Hoeven bestowed the state's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, on Sister Welder in 2004.

White and other university officials said Wednesday Sister Welder's health is good and she works regularly, though she takes dialysis three times a week and is awaiting a second kidney transplant. An earlier transplant a few years ago failed. They said they didn't know to what extent that led to her decision, but White said she has always told board members she would likely step down after turning 70.

Sister Welder told the board last week of her decision, but did not want it announced until after the annual commencement ceremonies, which were held Saturday, White said.

"We're quite proud of our board, that nobody leaked it," he quipped. The board has 30 members.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.