At 19 years of age, Jay Knudtson had his eyes set on a future in professional baseball. The lure of the quintessential field of dreams led him to accepting a baseball scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota.
A nagging shoulder injury, though, sidelined him, eventually leading to a major rotator cuff surgery from which he never fully recovered, thus dashing his long-term career hopes. With priorities he articulates as “misguided” and “immature,” Knudtson lost his baseball scholarship, dropped out of college and began facing the prospects of entering the working world without a college diploma.
“My dream of playing professional baseball clearly dominated my agenda, and I did not enter college with the appropriate discipline and commitment to the academic side of the experience,” he said.
Fast forward 35 years and the man many know as the former mayor of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a member of Southeast Missouri State University’s Board of Regents and one of Ingram Magazine’s “50 Missourians You Should Know” is poised to complete a lifelong dream. On Dec. 15, Knudtson will cross the stage during Southeast Missouri State’s fall commencement ceremonies and celebrate the completion of a Bachelor of General Studies with a minor in sociology and criminal justice.
It’s been two and a half years since Knudtson committed to completing what he had started in fall 1982, referring to the last leg of his journey and the past few years as “Project Git ’Er Done.” The day was May 3, 2016, when he spoke to Southeast President Carlos Vargas and shared his story and dream of completing his college degree. That’s when the pursuit of his goal intensified. His son was just weeks away from graduating from the University of Mississippi where he would become a first generation “Knudtson” to graduate from college. In July of that year, he also met with the late Dr. Gerald McDougall, former dean of Southeast’s Harrison College of Business and a friend and colleague of Knudtson’s, who offered him encouragement and advice as he launched his college completion journey.
“The pursuit of this achievement is not as much about what it represents to me professionally … it is all personal,” he said.
“After sharing some of these thoughts with President Vargas, he asked me if I was serious and indicated that if I was willing to explore the options, that he would be willing to support me in this effort,” Knudtson said.
He recounted his past and the decisions that have brought him to the cusp of a college degree.
After dropping out of the University of Minnesota, Knudtson job-hopped and traveled the country refereeing minor league hockey and working in retail. In 1988, Fleet Mortgage Corp. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, gave him his first professional break, allowing him to enter the business world without a college diploma. In 1989, Fleet Mortgage sent Knudtson to Cape Girardeau to establish a mortgage loan production office. After achieving success in this area, Boatmen’s Bank of Cape Girardeau, later known as Bank of America, extended an offer to him to work in their real estate department. At about this same time, he met and married his wife, Cindy Cantrell.
In 1993, they were blessed with the birth of their son, Gunnar, and “the naïve and immature college dropout was now beginning to grow up,” he said of himself.
Knudtson’s banking career continued to flourish with Bank of America, and he attended several top-level banking schools.
“But perhaps even more important to my growth was my commitment to community involvement,” he said.
He became involved in the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce, the Cape Girardeau Parks & Recreation Board, the Noon Lions Club, the Elks Club, the SoutheastHEALTH System Board and the Cape Girardeau Area Magnet Board.
“This was an area I felt comfortable in and even felt as if I had somewhat of a calling,” he said.
In April 2002, he was elected Cape Girardeau mayor and, in 2006, he was reelected for a final four-year term, serving until 2010 when term limits prevented him from seeking re-election.
“It didn’t take long for my life to take on a whole new perspective serving as Cape’s mayor,” he said.
During his tenure, he worked tirelessly with the University, the city and the state of Missouri, ultimately leading to the creation of the River Campus, home of Southeast’s Holland College of Arts and Media. Also in 2002, he and a business partner founded First Missouri State Bank, leaving the “Big Bank World” behind for the smaller, friendlier “Community Banking World.” There, he continues to serve as executive vice president and a founding board member.
In 2013, Knudtson was appointed to the Southeast Board of Regents, where he also served as Board president from 2015-2017.
“I’m extremely humbled and honored to serve with such dedicated and capable Regents who work tirelessly to promote, lead and provide a vision for continued success for Southeast Missouri State into the future,” he said.
Although he is proud of his many achievements, the absence of a college degree still tugs at him, he said. On several occasions, he notes, he has been asked to speak to Southeast classes when, invariably an inquisitive student will ask where he graduated from college.
“It is that moment that I don’t ever want to feel or be in again,” he said.
Knudtson will present the address at Southeast’s 2 p.m. commencement ceremony Dec. 15 in the Show Me Center. The ceremony takes on special significance for him. He will speak to the graduating class from the heart, as a fellow graduate, having completed a similar journey as his classmates, celebrating their collective “Will to Do,” feeling the same exhilaration in a job well done and dreaming about the prospects for a bright future.