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After 41+ years, Ted Tolaas, stockroom services director, retires

For years, his routine has been an early-morning rise at 4:30 a.m., an hour plus drive to the University of Minnesota, an hour workout at the university's Recreation Center, and then off to a full day of work for the Department of Chemistry, leaving little time for anything else at the end of the day.

But at the end of May 2014, Theodore "Ted" Tolaas retires, saying goodbye to more than 41 years of service to the Department of Chemistry, most of those spent as stockroom services director. His days will still be busy with all of those postponed to-dos on his list, spending time with his wife Georganne who is retiring from her graduate programs coordinator position with Computer Science & Engineering, and spending lots and lots of time with their beloved grandchildren who live just down the road.

Ted Tolaas actually started with the Department of Chemistry in April 1970, working in the teaching laboratory stock room for about a year and a half, before leaving to finish his bachelor's degree in plant and soil science and a brief stint working as a junior scientist. He returned in 1973 and, shortly thereafter, became the supervisor of what became a melded research and teaching laboratory stockroom.

For close to 39 years, Ted worked with Stanley "Stan" Bonnema, the department's Director of Operations who retired in 2009. "Ted was a good supervisor to his employees, encouraging them to be their best and to do their best," said Bonnema. "He was a very dependable employee, even though he lived 60 miles away in Wisconsin. Even in the worst winter weather, Ted managed to be at work on time. 

"Ted's family is very important to him; he and his wife are very proud of their son & daughter and their grandchildren. I really enjoyed working with Ted all those years and I know the Department of Chemistry will miss him greatly," said Bonnema.

Ted's main responsibility was attaining all of the equipment and chemicals necessary for the department's research and teaching laboratories, which encompasses preparing bids, working and developing relationships with vendors, and securing the best prices possible.

"Our goal is to get the best products here as cheap as we can," said Tolaas. "We want our researchers' grants to go as far as they can, and our students labs to be the most cost efficient as they can be."

Throughout the years, Tolaas and those working with him, including Victor "Vic" Munsch, senior stores and delivery supervisor, have developed a purchasing system unmatched at the university. The system is built on high-volume bulk purchasing, which has yielded some of the most competitive pricing at the university. Most importantly, this system is built on direct relationships with vendors, ranging from large chemical companies to mom-and-pop hardware stores.

Bonnema said that Ted was a tough negotiator with equipment and chemical vendors. He was able to obtain scientific supplies of all kinds at the best prices, which translated into thousands of dollars of savings for the teaching and research laboratories. 

"Ted has worked with some vendor representatives for 30 or more years," said Munsch. "He has not been afraid to ask for that lower price even when the vendor has already given him a quote. Ted has done a tremendous job in saving the Chemistry Department and the university money over the years. This is, in part, due to his great relationship with these vendors."

Tolaas has seen many changes the past 41 years. The emphasis on safety has really made a difference both in the labs and in the stockrooms. He remembers when the stockroom's perimeter walls consisted of wire mesh open to visual access to the chemicals and equipment. Now, the stockroom has security alarms and individual rooms for dry chemicals, liquid chemicals, and supplies and equipment.

Safety has also made a big difference in the teaching laboratories, he said. The emphasis on green chemistry has greatly reduced the use of corrosive and toxic chemicals in those labs. The department's recent strong emphasis on the wearing of personal protective gear has also meant less resistance by students to wearing goggles in the labs, which is mandatory.

During his 41-year tenure at the university, there has never been a serious laboratory accident. Tolaas, a member of the department's Safety Committee, is extremely grateful for this.

For Tolaas, there is a lot to miss and reminisce about, including 41 years of working for different department chairs, different presidents, and different colleagues, some he has known for years like Bruce Moe and Christine Lundby, and some new faces who have been colleagues and friends. He is going to miss the students, and his 10 employees who often work behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly.

"Ted's long career and extensive knowledge were invaluable when I became the Director of Operations in 2009," said Chuck Tomlinson. "He provides context and perspective on everything from teaching matters, to lab safety, to department history. It's difficult to imagine chemistry without him."

It has been 41 years of toil and trouble, challenges and changes, good times and deep friendships, and the ups and downs of the job itself. "It is going to take me awhile to grow myself out of this, something that I have been doing for years," said Tolaas, but he looks forward to all that awaits as he transitions into a busy retirement.

"Ted's steady hand has guided the complicated operations of our undergraduate teaching laboratories in outstanding fashion, having an impact on tens of thousands of students," said William Tolman, chair of the Department of Chemistry. "We also appreciate his leadership in purchasing chemicals and supplies, where his negotiating acumen has resulted in massive financial savings to the department and to research grants, all the while keeping strong relationships with vendors. We will greatly miss Ted's presence at the helm, and wish him the very best during his retirement."