Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served eight years as the nation’s secretary of agriculture, is back in Mount Pleasant with his wife, Christie, this weekend and they have a big goal: raise one million dollars for Iowa Wesleyan University.

They plan to do it in just 40 hours.

“I’ve had a chance to visit many, many places around the country and around the world and one of the things that I think distinguishes a place from any other place is the ability to have access to higher education,” Vilsack said.

“That’s one of the blessings we have here in southeast Iowa is that we’ve got Iowa Wesleyan University which provides a four-year college degree to young people at an affordable cost, which is important, but also provides an opportunity for life-long learning.”

The Vilsacks have partnered with KILJ Radio in Mount Pleasant for a “Retro Radiothon.” Forty years ago, Vilsack led a similar event on the same station and raised more than $200,000 for a new athletic complex in Mount Pleasant.

“So I think we can do it again,” Vilsack said. “And I think now is an opportunity for us to celebrate the importance of Iowa Wesleyan University, but also use it as an opportunity to educate people about the tremendous impact that the university has on this community, a $55 million economic impact, changing the lives of people.”

Astronaut Peggy Whitson and space scientist James Van Allen are among Iowa Wesleyan’s most famous graduates. Vilsack said the University of Maryland’s current president attended Wesleyan as a 15-year-old from South America who was just learning to speak English.

“I’m here because I really believe in the mission of Iowa Wesleyan,” Vilsack said. “I’m here also because I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the people of Mount Pleasant, specifically, and Henry County and the people of southeast Iowa who gave me an opportunity to serve as a mayor and a state senator.”

Without having those experiences, Vilsack has often said he wouldn’t have had the opportunities to serve as Iowa’s governor and the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

“My father-in-law, Tom Bell, is graduate of Wesleyan and he always felt very, very strongly about then college and now the university,” Vilsack said, “and I think this is a way of making sure we keep faith with our family traditions as well.”

Christie Bell grew up in Mount Pleasant. After she and Tom Vilsack married, the couple moved to her hometown and Christie Vilsack’s father and husband became law partners.

The “Radiothon” for Iowa Wesleyan begins at 7 p.m. tonight. Iowa Wesleyan was founded in 1842. It is one of the oldest colleges west of the Mississippi.

(Reporting by Theresa Rose, KILJ, Mount Pleasant; additional reporting and editing by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson)