Pete Willner is an iconic figure at the School of Law. He is the first face many see when they enter the building, and he is a good friend to several faculty, staff and students.
“He greets everyone with a smile and a kind word,” said Scott Swanson, director of academic achievement. “He loves students and they love him.”
Even though he has had nicknames such as Sweet Pete and Officer Friendly, Willner doesn’t always look like a friendly guy. In fact, LuAnn Hudson, administrative assistant to the deans, stops by the security desk every morning and calls the greeting she gets a “friendly growl.” It’s an apt way to describe Willner whose look has changed over the years but has always included bear-like elements, including his barrel chest. He doesn’t so much walk the halls of the School of Law as prowl.
Having started at the University of St. Thomas in 1981, Willner witnessed the university’s expansion from St. Paul to Minneapolis. After serving on the St. Paul campus, he moved to the Minneapolis campus five years before the law school was built.
Willner was the first person that many of the law school’s founding faculty and administrators met through his assignment at a parking booth. Bringing a big personality to any space he occupies, the space was known as “Pete’s Sugar Shack.”
“I don’t know why it was called that,” Willner laughed. “Maybe because everyone gave me sweets.”
Swanson recalled when he first met Willner at the Sugar Shack. They didn’t hit it off, so Swanson brought Willner a Wuollet’s Bakery cream cheese Danish, and their relationship improved immediately.
When the doors of the School of Law opened in 2003, Willner moved inside. “The first-year class, I thought ‘no one is going to top this class.’ What I found out is that every class has been great,” Willner said.
Public Safety Officer Brad Hanson joined Willner for several years at the School of Law. For many law graduates, their image of public safety was Hanson playing straight man to Willner’s more teasing nature. “Pete and I hit it off,” Hanson said. “We complement each other.” The two collaborated by knowing the students and maintaining safety. They even contributed to the short-lived Tommie Law News, in which they had a regular column that featured a picture of Statler and Waldorf of Muppets’ fame to represent the two officers.
Willner has had a lot of benefactors at the School of Law, and the entire building shares some responsibility for any bad eating habits he may have. “I could never get skinny around here!” Willner protested. Former Associate Dean of Student Affairs Dave Bateson regularly brought banana bread his wife, Fran, had baked. Students and staff always make sure that Willner knows which department is serving a free lunch, or they drop off a snack.
According to Willner, one of his best moments at the School of Law was in 2005 when he received the Service and Community Mission Award, an honor the school bestows on individuals who have shown exceptional service or leadership by living out the school’s commitment to improving the lives of members within the law school community.
“I’m serious when I say I have the best job in the university,” Willner said. “The students are fantastic, and that hasn’t changed over the years. I love doing my job and providing a service and making sure there is a nice environment for students to study. It is great to work here, and that is from the heart.”
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