University News

UW-Whitewater 2021 winter commencement speaker is Ray Jacobsen

December 07, 2021

Written by Kristine Zaballos | Photo by Craig Schreiner

Ray Jacobsen, a 1971 graduate of Fort Atkinson High School, believes in the value of mentorships, and credits four mentors he has had over the course of his life with much of his success. He identified two of those mentors, and two, he says, found him.

The first was Willie Myers, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater athletic director and coach of the wrestling team.

“Coach Myers was a life-changer to me,” Jacobsen said. “That person I met when I was 19 years old was a thoughtful person and a great listener. He helped you figure out how to solve problems, and he generously gave of himself and his time.” 

The storied coach and mentor also helped Jacobsen think about what kind of person he wanted to be.

“I was surrounded by friends and athletes, and Willie showed me how to be kind and thoughtful — he was never overly competitive or aggressive — and helped frame my overall skill set as a person. The question was, how are you going to interact with people? He helped me frame out how I wanted to present myself to others. What success I later had in business, I was selected because of my genuine caring and interest in people. I helped them find their path to success.”

Jacobsen chose UW-Whitewater because he recognized its strong family culture, sense of community, and friendly atmosphere and found the transition to campus to be easy. In addition to wrestling, he played football for two years before graduating in 1976 with a Bachelor of Science in Education and a minor in coaching education. 

A commitment to lifelong learning

On Saturday, Dec. 18, Jacobsen will serve as speaker for the Class of 2021’s winter graduation ceremony at Kachel Fieldhouse in the Williams Center.

Among other themes, Jacobsen will talk about his commitment to learning. 

“There’s always a learning cycle ahead of you that needs to be nurtured. I had and still have a prolific appetite for learning, for finding new and interesting ideas, for observing peoples and cultures and where like and unlike people are coming from.” 

Another tool for lifelong learning that Jacobsen endorses is choosing your environment carefully.

“I always choose my environment and look for a place where there are smarter and more experienced people than me, so I can learn from them.”

After a three-year stint at Brookfield East High School as a teacher and coach, Jacobsen embarked upon a long career in business, first at Wausau Insurance Co. and then EBI Companies, rising from loss control consultant to regional manager and then CEO at the age of 39. 

“It was unusual,” said Jacobsen. “In my 30s I was tagged to be a CEO if I accomplished several goals over a series of years. I was given various challenges to accomplish, and they told me that if I was successful they’d promote me at 39.” 

Jacobsen also had executive leadership positions as CEO or president at Connecticut Speciality, Royal & Sun Alliance, and American Workers Assurance, as well as serving on the board of the National Council of Compensation Insurance. More recently, he has been a business consultant at Aon PLC, a British multinational professional services firm that provides a range of financial risk-mitigation products.

The UW-Whitewater advantage

Along the way, Jacobsen kept his strong ties to UW-Whitewater, to the wrestling program, and especially to Coach Myers, who passed away earlier this year. He is currently a member of the board of the UW-Whitewater Foundation, Inc. In 1997, when he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from UW-Whitewater, he was able to speak to the grounding he’d received on campus.

“I framed it that, in the business world, I had competitive advantages because I went to UW-Whitewater, which has served me extremely well on my journey throughout the years,” said Jacobsen. “That provided me with strong integrity and morals, leadership skills, mentors, professors, coaches and other students around me.”

Jacobsen added that goal-setting and ambition, too, are necessary qualities for leadership and success in life.

“When I reflected on the students who will be graduating and what they have endured with the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic to get to this point, I knew there is a commonality: the class of 2021 is clearly ambitious and mindful of establishing goals.” 

Jacobsen lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife, Rebecca.