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Kathy Wilbur, staple of MSU community and state government, dies at 70

November 28, 2023
Photo from Michigan State University
Photo from Michigan State University —

Kathy Wilbur, 70, the first woman to direct three state of Michigan departments and a fixture of the MSU community, died Sunday morning in her Okemos home surrounded by family. 

Wilbur announced her retirement as senior vice president of government relations at MSU less than six weeks ago. Friends of Wilbur said she started experiencing pain soon after the announcement and received a cancer diagnosis, according to Gongwer. This was a recurrence of the disease, which she first beat in 2004. 

In 1984, Wilbur was elected to MSU’s Board of Trustees where she served until 1991. She then served under former Gov. John Engler’s administration as the director of three different departments: consumer and industry services, commerce and licensing and regulation. 

As trustee, Wilbur gave conference presentations and published peer reviewed journals focusing on the role of institutional trustees and governing boards in higher education. 

"Her commitment and service to MSU since her appointment in 2018 have left an incredible legacy to our institution," MSU's Board of Trustees wrote in a statement. "Her legacy at Michigan State University will continue to inspire and guide us in our mission to transform lives through education."

The board's statement said several key initiatives at MSU, including the Center to Prevent Mass Violence and MSU Apple Academy, were funded because of Wilbur's dedication and expertise. 

"Because of her efforts, MSU's foundation and future have been fortified," reads the statement. 

Born in Detroit, Wilbur got her start in the Michigan state legislature holding various communications positions, and eventually served as the chief of staff to State Senator William Sederburg. 

"She was able to work with a wide variety of people. She was able to walk the paths and get things done while other people would have been caught up with ideology and other problems," Sederburg told Gongwer.

"From the legislature to state government to her decades of service in higher education, Kathy always got the job done and was a constant source of truth, stability, and strength," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wrote in a statement. 

Wilbur transitioned to higher education in 2002, accepting the position of vice president for government and external relations at Central Michigan University. She also served as interim president there for one year. 

“Kathy attended nearly every event. She wanted students to see her and know her, and to know that she was there to support them,” Toby Roth, associate vice president of government and external relations at Central Michigan University, said. “She could always be counted on to greet you with a smile on her face and an endearing sense of humor — she was an amazing person.” 

Wilbur joined MSU as the senior vice president for government relations in 2018. In her retirement statement, she described the opportunity to serve MSU, her alma mater, as an “honor” and the “capstone of (her) career in public service.” 

In a statement, former Gov. and MSU advisor Jim Blanchard described Wilbur as the "Rock of Gibraltar" during the most difficult times in East Lansing.

“Her advocacy helped shape the future of higher education in Michigan, and I’m happy to have known her,” U.S. Senator Gary Peters wrote in a post on the social media platform X. 

Wilbur earned three degrees from MSU, including a doctorate in higher education administration, a master’s degree in higher education, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. 

Wilbur "cared deeply and passionately" for the university, MSU Interim President Teresa Woodruff wrote in a statement

"She was our champion with lawmakers and policy leaders and we are grateful for her service and dedication," Woodruff wrote. "She also was a trailblazer as a woman leader in Michigan, dedicating most of her 45-year career to higher education. But most of all, she was a caring and generous colleague and we will treasure the time we had with her."

In 2007, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. 

She was also chair of the board of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan think-tank aimed at helping Michigan succeed in a knowledge-driven economy. 

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“While we are grieving the loss of Kathy, we will be forever grateful for the incomparable leadership she provided our organization to develop and fight for big change that would improve the well-being of all Michiganders,” the organization’s president, Lou Glazer, said

Wilbur is survived by her husband and four sons: Thomas, William, Samuel and Raymond. She is also survived by her granddaughter, Mary. 

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, December 16 at the Peoples Church in East Lansing.

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