The Journey to President

From high-flying air force officer to Plattsburgh University's new president

Story by Jessica Dunn
Photos by Ryan Hutchins / Cardinal Points

As a child he wanted to be first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. In high school he was an average student doing just enough to earn a diploma. However, things changed when John Ettling entered college.

Dr. Ettling
On April 16, 2005, the Plattsburgh community celebrated the inauguration of John Ettling as the tenth president of SUNY Plattsburgh

“I know this may be hard to believe, but I had an 8 a.m. class my freshman year and I never missed one.” Ettling can remember getting up at 7 a.m. to prep himself for classes. On the other side of the room he could hear his roommate repeatedly hitting the snooze button, delaying his departure from bed.

He attended the University of Virginia and majored in history. “I was not sure what I wanted to do, but I knew it had something to do with history.” History was Ettling’s love. From the age of seven his family would go on road trips and he would keep a journal of the places he visited. He would beg for a quick stop at a museum so that he could soak up as much knowledge as possible.

When Ettling graduated from the University of Virginia, it was 1966; President Lyndon Johnson was in office and John Ettling had earned a BA in History. It was a time when the United States was in social turmoil—war. Ettling joined the U.S. Air Force and served approximately a year in Vietnam. He wanted to be an aviator and satisfy his adventurous side. He attended a navigation school, through the U.S. Air Force, in San Antonio, Texas. “I loved it. I was unmarried, making money, and I loved flying.” He also felt that the military would help him achieve his goal of traveling from country to country and learning about different cultures. Although Ettling loved his military life, he still knew it was not what he wanted to do. Things just did not seem right, yet.

Dr. Ettling, Harvard University
John Ettling, wearing the gown of his alma mater, Harvard University

With his service completed, he moved on to Harvard University to work on a graduate degree. Harvard was one out of four choices for Ettling. “I went to Harvard because they offered me a nice package and I had a younger sister that lived in Cambridge.” Ettling continued with his history major. It was now 1978; seven years later, he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. Although such a degree is what most people dream of, the-now Dr. Ettling was still quite unsure of what he wanted to do, or where he wanted to go.

He never thought he would find himself a part of a college administration. “When I was in college I did not think about the administration in my school, unless I had a problem that needed to be fixed, and luckily I didn’t.” Ettling—a Texas native—was offered his first job at the University of Houston, in Houston, Texas, where he became the dean of the honors department. He also taught some freshman-level courses. “I loved working at the university, but even more I enjoyed teaching. I would say I enjoy teaching the freshmen more than any other level because they are just so impressionable.”

Although he loved his job, he wanted to be more in touch with students. “I wanted to interact more with students. So with training on his mind, Ettling moved on to teach history at the University of North Dakota in 1995.

It is now 2005, two children and two marriages later Dr. John Ettling is elected the 10th President of Plattsburgh State University. We sit in his presidential office in Hawkins Hall; his eyes light up as he speaks about his past. He crossed his legs, rested his cheek on his fingers, and began to speak. “I first found out about the position through a friend. When I got here I fell in love with it.” Ettling enjoys the size of the PSU campus because he feels that students have the chance to connect with the faculty here. “I am coming from a college where the student body is about twice the size of Plattsburgh State. It is impossible to have a relationship with a student in such a big school.”

"I plan to retire from this job. I hope to be here a very long time."

As I gaze around his office, it was obvious that he had not fully moved in yet. There were just a few sheets of paper lying around his desk and a small flip phone. Behind his desk was a small table, where a stereo system declared home. “I plan to retire from this job. I hope to be here a very long time.”

His phone rang, interrupting his closing remarks; it was his daughter. She is a senior studying at Columbia University. Their conversation went on just as any between a father and daughter. There were the occasional uh-huhs, which eventually led to a “I'll call you back.” He returned to his seat and resumed his statement. “I want students to know that my office is always open.” Ettling also believes that the faculty at Plattsburgh State help to keep him and the school afloat. “The faculty here is great. I could not do my job without them.”

What are your hopes for Plattsburgh University's new president?

Read John Ettling's full biography.

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Office of the President
159 Hawkins Hall
101 Broad Street
Plattsburgh, New York 12901

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