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SJMC alumnus Tim Larson rises to the top at Jostens

Pride and tradition have never occupied quiet houses in the story of American life. You can find them in our national monuments and war memorials. They're engraved on the sides of our most treasured sports trophies. They dance in wedding photographs on the walls of our grandparents' homes. Few things seem more urgent than our desire to commemorate, to crease every page and mark each chapter in our collective national youth. Enter the yearbook.

by Erik Ernest Martz

larsonTim.jpgVery few Americans who attended public or private school in the past century did not come across that annual totem in the educational lives of young people. Of course, all memory-makers require a steady supply line, and any student who has devoted hours in classroom sessions or after-school meetings to the creation of a yearbook is likely familiar with the name Jostens. Certainly a high school senior and yearbook staffer from Detroit Lakes, Minn., was familiar with the company. And that was only 16 years before he became their president and chief executive officer.

For Tim Larson, an SJMC graduate and the current president and chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based Jostens Inc., it all began with a family tradition and a love for computers. The son of two school teachers, Larson was well-acquainted with academic tradition from an early age. At least from the time he could pick up scissors.

"My father was a yearbook adviser," he explains. "He would bring home photographs for me to cut, and that got me, at least, aware of yearbooks."

In high school, Larson participated in various sports and activities, but his real interest was in a relatively new area of study.

"I really got into computers growing up, particularly Apple computers" he says, as if getting into computers was the 1980s equivalent of getting into Zeppelin or Salinger. It was a time, though, when the commercial world had yet to realize the full potential of the personal computer. Even from his elementary school days, Larson was fascinated by the communication possibilities of technology. In pursuing his fascination, he had unknowingly placed himself in the pocket of progress.

In 1992, his senior year at Detroit Lakes High School, Larson joined the yearbook staff at the suggestion of his computer teacher. He had plenty to offer the yearbook-making process, but it's what he learned from the experience that helped him discover the roots of his future talents as a communicator and storyteller.

"Being on yearbook staff, being on student council, having my family in education," he says, "those experiences always bring me back to the core of what education and school and achievements and storytelling is all about."

At the time Larson began working on his high school yearbook, Jostens was 95 years into a history that now spans 111 years, and the company stood at a turning point. Otto Josten began his ring-making business in 1897 in Owatonna, where it grew quickly, eventually diversifying into yearbooks and commemorative products for every kind of academic tradition or celebration. The company made its name by marketing directly to schools and students, providing door-to-door sales and working closely with student yearbook staffs. Its fortunes had risen and fallen over the years, but halfway through the ninth decade of its existence, the company saw the rise of the computer age and the need to take advantage of it. Conveniently, there happened to be a student from Detroit Lakes who somehow knew the ins and outs of these new fangled machines. Perhaps he could help.

"After my senior year," Larson says, "Jostens actually asked if I would come to their yearbook camp and start teaching other students how to use the computer to create the yearbook, because it was early in the desktop publishing era." At 18, Larson had begun a working relationship with the company he would one day lead. College just had to get in the way.

Larson credits Linda Lindholm, coordinator of student services, for convincing him to attend the SJMC, though neither could know how prolonged his undergraduate studies would be at Murphy Hall. It started out routinely enough. Larson, already interested in technology's capacity to communicate, chose a degree program in strategic communication. For two years, he dutifully attended classes and worked part time in media relations for the University's athletic department, putting together media guides and programs for athletic events. It was at the end of his sophomore year that Jostens called again. This time, it was for good.

Larson began his career at Jostens in 1994, at the seasoned age of 19. His rise at Jostens was quick and prodigious. Wherever he was in the company--technology, e-business, marketing, general management--he always occupied a position of leadership. In the late 1990s, he helped the company transition to the Internet world by pioneering services for students to create yearbooks entirely online. It was a way for him to mirror the support he was given as a young student.

"I really appreciate working for a company that supports the mission of education," he says. "I hear it from our employees: They love the fact that they get to help a yearbook staff create a book, and that those students get great experiences from that opportunity."

Larson enjoys talking about other people. He emphasizes his commitment to working for his employees. In speaking about the "fundamental" influence of his SJMC education, two specific examples come up--Gordon Leighton's discussion of the general framework of communications and David Therkelsen's conversations about the importance of communication at senior levels of a company.

Their words were not in vain. In early 2008, at 34 years of age, Larson reached the highest level of management in Jostens, where he continues to innovate and create new opportunities for the company and its customers, including a joint athletic venture with Disney World, and the online Memory Book program--dedicated to helping people preserve the most precious moments in their family history.

And, yes, he did eventually finish his college career, attending night classes for six years after leaving to work for Jostens. In 2001, as an executive for one of the top supporters of academic traditions in the country, Tim Larson finally received his undergraduate degree in strategic communication. He's been helping people to tell their stories ever since.

Erik Ernest Martz is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.