Paul Sandin will be remembered for what he didn’t say.
A fiercely active listener—Sandin’s eyes sparkled as he nodded his head thoughtfully during a conversation—the Butler University Speaker’s Lab director and senior lecturer taught his students that the key to leadership isn’t delivering fancy speeches, but treating everyone with grace and dignity.
“He taught you hard things about emotional subjects, really just lessons about growing up,” said alumnus Todd Bolster, a former Speaker’s Lab employee took 11 classes with Sandin. “He handled it with so much grace.”
Sandin died at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Friday night from acute renal failure, or a sudden dysfunction of the kidneys. He is survived by Laura, his wife, and Erin, his daughter. He will be remembered at a memorial service in the Reilly Room at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Senior Nick Faris said he realized Sandin wasn’t an average professor when he brought a box of what seemed to be useless, dated compasses to his leadership class and then directed students to spin around, stop and then look at which way they were pointing.
As expected, everyone was facing different directions, Faris said.
“It was then that Professor Sandin said everyone in life has a different purpose, and as a result their lives go in different directions,” Faris said. “The compasses we were holding were a symbol for us to realize that we all have a true north, and we were to use the compass to guide us straight on our path once we figure out our purpose.”
College of Communication Interim Dean Bill Neher, who ate lunch with Sandin most days, said there was not a dry eye in the classroom on Monday when Neher visited Sandin’s Communication Ethics course.
“The students are truly shattered by the loss,” Neher said. “He meant so much to them as a mentor.”
Senior Maria Mayer said that Sandin’s gentle and calm presence forged an easy friendship between them.
“I will miss waving to him every time I walk down the Fairbanks Center stairs,” Mayer said. “He genuinely was interested not only in a student’s learning process but their lives.”
After starting at Butler in 1996, Sandin cultivated the Speakers Lab from a program that served 18 students in its first semester to a program that now registers about 2,200 students each academic year.
Lauren McNulty, a senior Speakers Lab tutor, said working with him at the Speakers Lab made her realize Sandin’s own leadership style.
“I really think that he was a transformational leader,” said McNulty, who took 12 classes with Sandin. “He inspired his students to do great things, to please him and better themselves.”
Frankfort Mayor Chris McBarnes, a 2011 Butler graduate, said Sandin’s transformational leadership qualities came from the fact that he saw more in people than they saw in themselves.
“He had a way of pulling out the best in me,” McBarnes said. “I owe everything to him.”
Before he died, Sandin was in the process of implementing an additional leadership component to Butler’s organizational communication program—a subject that he taught several classes about and a trait that he worked tirelessly to develop in his students.
Jim Gilkey, a 2010 graduate, said Sandin gave him the ability to practice discernment in his professional and personal relationships.
“Being able to see beyond the façade changed the dynamic of a lot of my relationships,” Gilkey said. “It was more than just coursework. It was our lives.”
In class, Sandin engaged students by supplementing traditional teaching methods with non-traditional material to keep his lectures lively.
In his transformational leadership course, he examined side by side the traits of contentious rebel Che Guevara with peace activist Mahatma Gandhi, because he saw lessons everywhere.
“He almost made it seem like a journey,” said junior Andrew Wray, who took three classes with Sandin, including an independent study this semester. “He empowered his students to come to their own conclusions but helped us along the way.”
Sandin is the author of a widely used communication ethics textbook, which he co-wrote with Neher, but Wray said he was just as interested in hearing from students as he was in sharing his vast industry knowledge.
“It was always framed as, ‘Let’s have a conversation about this,’ or ‘What do you think about that?’” Wray said.
Class participation was extremely high in his classes, said student Alexandra Pierce, who took four classes with Sandin.
Katy Schrage, Sandin’s academic advisee, said his teaching style was unique.
“He taught me how to think critically, question the unquestionable,” Schrage said.
Nick Perry, who graduated in 2009 and managed the Speaker’s Lab, said Sandin made students accountable for their own learning because he wanted to prepare them for life after Butler.
“He was much more concerned with how his students would be successful in the real world rather than their ability to regurgitate information from a textbook,” Perry said. “He really wanted to cultivate strong leaders. That was refreshing.”
Sandin also was an advocate for students outside of class in good times and bad, especially in matters of confidence.
“[He] gave me hope when I felt incapable of my abilities as a student,” said senior Maureen Bamiro, who took her first class with Sandin this year.
Students often would line up after classes to tell Sandin about their lives.
“I knew he would truly listen to me,” said William Alexander, who took six classes with Sandin.
McBarnes said Sandin’s influence went beyond Butler students. In February, McBarnes invited Sandin to lead a leadership summit for 50 elected and appointed officials in Frankfort. Sandin gave a three-hour presentation about leadership and communication, which McBarnes said transformed the culture of politics in his county.
“We’re getting things done because of the wisdom he shared,” McBarnes said. “This cooperation is something we’ve never had before.”
As McNulty nears graduation, she said she’s keeping the true-north lesson close to her.
“He taught me what my fixed point is,” McNulty said. “We’re leaving Butler not only as smarter students but as better people because of him.”