Don Strom brings 40 years of law enforcement and security leadership experience to his position as Director of Public Security at Ringling College of Art + Design. He most recently served as a department leader in global security at Edward Jones, a financial services firm headquartered in Don’s former hometown of St. Louis. Before that, he served as chief of police at Washington University in St. Louis, a campus of 20,000 students, faculty and staff, where, among his other duties, he led the planning for two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate held on the campus. He also served as chief of police for the city of Carbondale, Illinois. Don graduated from Southern Illinois University and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He and his wife, Chris, moved to the Siesta Key in October, and, as you can tell by his suntan and warm smile, he is already enjoying life on the Gulf Coast.
Tell me a little bit about yourself – away from the job.
We moved here in October from St. Louis, home of the Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues. My wife, Chris, was a police officer for 15 years (which is how they met), and then went into sales before we made our move. We have four children – twins, one of whom is entering grad school to become a physician’s assistant and the other who just graduated with her master’s degree and is starting a new job. I have an older daughter who works with the veteran’s administration and an older son who is an automobile technician with Land Rover/Jaguar. Three of the children live in St. Louis, while the other is in Nashville. We bought a home on Siesta Key with a nice Gulf view, so the vacancy sign is ready to go up!
What brought you to Ringling College?
We had vacationed in Sarasota for more than 30 years, so Chris and I had a goal of relocating to this area. When the opportunity at Ringling College came along, it fit nicely into our plans. I had been the police chief at Washington University in St. Louis for a long time, and had retired into the private sector. But I missed being in a university environment and the energy that you get from working around young people. The level of creativity is just amazing. I used to tell our officers to make sure to introduce themselves to all the students and to remember their names, because we would be reading about them one day as they went out into the world and did great things.
What are your responsibilities on the campus?
As director of public safety, I oversee a staff of 21 dedicated officers (that number will increase with the new museum campus). I have to say one of the most exciting things was hearing from the officers themselves about the passion that they have for the young people here. Our officers are on campus 24 hours a day, and they are the ones who interact with literally everyone on campus. I provide leadership for that team and work with all of our colleagues and partners on campus to keep everyone safe. This includes the design of safety and security systems in buildings, access control systems and our ID card system – many things. What we try to do is take the best technology available and to match it with the human resource side, that quality person-to-person interaction that is so important. It takes both to provide the most comprehensive safety and security program possible. You have to remember that protecting a college campus is very different from a lot of other places. They tend to be very open and welcoming and that presents some unique challenges for the officers as they try to identify what is out of the ordinary, and a potential problem. That’s why every single person on campus shares in the responsibility of keeping the campus, and the people on it, safe every day.
What are some of the most interesting situations you have handled?
It is such a mix of things. There are funny episodes that happen because we are surrounded by young people who are still making the same young-people type of mistakes that we all made when we were their age. But then you have to balance that against much more serious situations, where people’s lives and welfare are at stake. I have always approached this job by reminding myself that families are sending the most important person in their lives to a campus that is sometimes thousands of miles away from where they are. I know how that feels. I’m not just a public safety director. I’m a dad. That’s why I understand when, at the start of a semester, a concerned parent will call public safety in the middle of the night and ask us to make sure their child is alright. I gently remind them that it’s time for them to relax and let their child assume some of that responsibility.
Describe your interactions with the students on campus.
What I have found here is that the students are pretty serious about their education. They have invested a lot to be here, and they are kept pretty busy with the work they have to do. We want them to have time to relax and enjoy themselves – but to do it in a safe way. As they spread their wings, and enjoy this independence from their families, we sometimes have to step in and throw a little cold water on some of that fun, though those instances are the exception and not the rule. I have only been here since November, but in the short time I have been here, I have found the vast majority of students to be very focused on what they came here to do. They are great kids. At the end of the academic year, the Student Government brought me to a meeting where they gave me a stack of thank you notes for our officers. You could tell that our officers had really touched our students’ lives in deep and meaningful ways.
Is it difficult to plan for things that you hope will never happen?
I tend to over-plan. You plan for what you can anticipate, and if you have all of your strategies worked out, and then over-plan, you will be in a better position to handle the unexpected when it occurs. Even with relatively simple on-campus events, if you plan everything right, the attendees will never know you were there. All they will know is that they came and had a good time. On a much larger scale, hurricane season requires intensive planning. At orientation, we make sure students and their families become aware of the realities of where we live – including the possibility of hurricanes. We make sure that all students have a plan that includes – should the college close – knowing where they will go and how they will get there. We plan like all of these things are going to happen, and then we hope they don’t.
How do you relax?
We are on call 24 hours a day, so it does wear on you sometimes. I’m a family person. My son played baseball at the college level, so we were always involved in that. My daughter rode horses. We used to focus on family-related things. Since we moved here, I now enjoy going home and relaxing on the deck. We just recently purchased a boat, so that has opened up a whole new horizon for us.
Which do you prefer – steak or seafood?
Seafood – my favorite is scallops.
A day at the beach or hiking and biking? A day at the beach – or preferably out on my boat.
Favorite movie of all time? “The Greatest Showman.” My kids turned me on to it.
Watching TV or reading? If it’s TV, it’s probably “The Office.” If it’s reading, I don't read non-fiction. I get enough reality at work.
Written by Ringling College contributor Gayle Guynup
Illustration by Paige Hoodie (Illustration, ‘21)