In 2012, you could probably find Ernest “Ernie” S. Micek making the two-and-a-half-hour drive into Madison, Wis., from his home in southeast Minnesota to lend a hand at the Discovery Building.
Micek wasn’t a scientist or a researcher with a lab on campus, and he was retired, but you’d hardly know it.
A few years before, he had wrapped a 42-year career at Cargill, Inc., a global food corporation headquartered in the Midwest, where he served as President, CEO, and Chairman leading many global trade efforts and serving under both Presidents Bush and Clinton.
But in 2012, Ernie had a new job: get the Morgridge Institute for Research up and running. The institute was only a few years old, with just a handful of scientists occupying a sprawling new research facility at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And the institute needed a Chief Executive Officer.
So Micek, then in his 70s, made the frequent drives to Madison. He chaired the institute’s Board of Trustees and worked hand-in-hand with leadership at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).
“Ernie was always there. You could call him on a moment’s notice,” recalls Carl Gulbrandsen, former Managing Director at WARF. “He knew how to roll his sleeves up and really get the job done.”
And Micek did.
Over the next two years, he helped recruit Jim Dahlberg, an emeritus UW-Madison professor of biomolecular chemistry, as the institute’s interim CEO, and then Brad Schwartz as the permanent CEO in 2013. Together, they paved a new path forward by reshaping the Morgridge Institute’s mission, focusing on innovative biomedical research in partnership with the university.
“Ernie was a key player in changing the spirit and goals of The Morgridge Institute,” recalls Dahlberg. “He always made sure we were doing things the right way. Importantly, Ernie was also a great mentor to me. He was somebody that I was very happy to have as a friend.”
“He had high standards, impeccable integrity, and was not at all worried about who would get credit. He believed deeply in the mission of the Morgridge Institute, and he led by example.”Brad Schwartz
Micek’s impact can be seen today. The Morgridge Institute houses 15 principal investigators and more than 150 employees and 90 partners in regenerative biology, metabolism, virology, bioethics, research computing, medical imaging, and outreach.
“Ernie was a delight to work with,” says Schwartz. “He had high standards, impeccable integrity, and was not at all worried about who would get credit. He believed deeply in the mission of the Morgridge Institute, and he led by example.”
Soon, a permanent memorial will be developed and installed in the Discovery Building to honor Micek’s decade of service to the institute, WARF, and the university. Micek, at 84, passed away peacefully in Oct. 2020 following a long illness, but his connections and contributions live on.
“He was a big believer in the mission of WARF and Morgridge,” says Scott Micek, Ernie’s son. “He would fairly often mention a specific research area and the promise and potential they showed, and if successful, how it could really improve the quality of life for many people.”
“He believed that scientific advancement was a way to improve the quality of life,” adds Stephanie Luetkehans, Ernie Micek’s daughter. “When I think about my father, I think about optimism. He was always very interested in innovation. And I feel like innovation was something that was carried out in many different ways in his life.”
Stephanie recalled the family’s time living abroad in Spain in the 1960s—one weekend, they took a family trip to Barcelona. But, Ernie had plans first.
“We’re in this fabulous country, and what do we do? We go to the library,” she laughs.
“He could lead others to achieve things, and he just never really shied away from a challenge. He seemed to always rise to the occasion and get the job done.”Scott Micek
But in that library, Micek found a two-volume set on the history of corn wet-milling. He studied the material, pitched it to Cargill, and would go on to help develop the company’s corn wet-milling division.
“From a relatively early age at Cargill, he realized his strengths were in management and people leadership,” adds Scott. “He could lead others to achieve things, and he just never really shied away from a challenge. He seemed to always rise to the occasion and get the job done.”
Dahlberg recalls that during the Morgridge Institute’s early years, Micek was always prepared. He was a meticulous notetaker with a keen eye on the job at hand. But moreover, Micek listened and cared.
“The Morgridge Institute is a much better and stronger place because of Ernie,” adds Gulbrandsen. “He was engaging. It was fun to be with Ernie, and fun to talk with him. He was as interested in you as you were in him.”
Micek was born and raised on a small farm outside of Arcadia, Wis., in the rocky hills of southwestern Wisconsin. He collected tractors, primarily Farmall tractors from the 1940s and 50s, and many in red. (One small collectible tractor is still on Dahlberg’s desk today)
“Even before he was a Badger, he was into red,” says Sally, his wife of 62 years.
Family was central in Micek’s life. They enjoyed semi-annual get-togethers on the shore of the Mississippi River that brought children and grandchildren home from across the country.
Education was a guiding principle in his life, adds Sally. Micek’s mother could not attend high school, and she impressed upon a young Ernie the value of an education and where it could take him.
“He always viewed his college education as the springboard that led to everything else that happened in his life,” adds Scott.
Micek earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from UW-Madison in 1959. He served as a founding member of the Morgridge Institute Board of Trustees (2006-2014), where he led as chair from 2011-14 and a seven-year term on the WARF Board.
He is survived by his wife Sally; children Scott, Stephanie, Jennifer, Mollie; 10 grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.