Andres Tennus

Alumni stories. Urmas Klaas: from historian to journalist, from journalist to mayor

Getting ready for the spring get-together, Lauri Räpp meets with well-known, colourful alumni of the University of Tartu to talk with them about their memories of their time at the university, the spirit of their alma mater and why they keep coming back. In January, the Mayor of Tartu Urmas Klaas spoke to him of his student days and brilliant professors. 

It was the year 1989. The winds of great change were blowing. The Singing Revolution was brewing into a storm. History was opening entirely new chapters and rewriting old ones. Truths that had been hidden for decades were coming to the surface. A leap into the great unknown awaited the whole society, as well as a young small-town man starting his studies at the university’s Department of History in Tartu. The university was his only choice, as the alma mater was deeply rooted in his family bloodline. The future mayor of Tartu dived head-first into city life and the ocean of knowledge.  

Who would have thought Urmas Klaas also considered becoming a doctor when he came to the university? Yet his interest in history from an early age led him to specialise in history. Although the competition was tough, the successful history Olympiads he had participated in during his school years helped him cross the threshold. It was at the history competitions that the young man had first met his future lecturers. Familiar faces and earlier contacts did not diminish the awe but instead added an extra dimension to it in the temple of education. 

In the mayor’s view, it is evident that interacting with great personalities develops young people. One thing is what you learn and what knowledge you acquire, but in the background, there is something else, something extremely important, that shapes a young person’s worldview and who they are – these are the values that lecturers pass on to students. According to Urmas Klaas, he was lucky to have a proud line of legendary professors who shared their knowledge with him: Helmut Piirimäe, Märt Tänava, Jüri Kivimäe, Sulev Vahtre. The latter was Urmas’s master’s thesis supervisor – a humorous man with a principled attitude and a true Estonian spirit. 

The mayor remembers another incident, which still makes him smile, with the feared but highly respected Professor Piirimäe, with whom he had to take the most challenging exam of his studies. The distinguished professor was in a hurry for an important meeting after the exam, so Urmas, who was among the last students to take the exam, could only answer the questions in general terms. A history lover and a thorough student, he was disappointed that he could not adequately demonstrate his knowledge. Professor Piirimäe answered, “You don’t have to drink to the bottom to find out whether there is wine or water in the cask.” In vino veritas!  

Speaking of wine, the mayor talks of students’ extracurricular life, which was much different. It is known that shops were empty in those days, and finding mood-boosting drinks for a party was quite an arduous job. They finally got the wine needed for a historians’ party at the club of the Estonian Agricultural Academy (now Estonian University of Life Sciences) from a collective farm near Tartu. The wine was delivered to the venue in an aluminium cask, and Urmas was entrusted with selling it. At one point, he understood that they needed more customers to make ends meet. As an entrepreneurial person, he decided that the club doors should be opened to the townsfolk. And, so he did. The party was memorable, and maybe it was even profitable – but who remembers?  

Urmas Klaas says with deep gratitude that the Department of History at the time provided a broad education and a sound basis in the humanities: foreign languages, psychology, basics of economics, sociology, political science. The university broadened one’s worldview, not to mention the social experience and network, which have remained for a lifetime. According to the mayor, the university allows you to think systematically and helps you understand the big picture.  

In the mayor’s office, on the shelf is a mug, a gift from former rector Peeter Tulviste, with an inscription, „I am a University of Tartu alumnus; who are you?”. The phrase implies that the university gives you a sense of belonging, but it should be said with pride, not conceit. Klaas thinks it is phenomenal how, in such a short time, an educational institution in a closed city can literally become one of the world’s top universities.  

“Just think how big our alumni community is! We’re in every corner of the world,” the mayor says with a smile. Therefore, alumni parties and get-togethers play a vital role in bringing everyone together to really meet each other, reminisce about the past and strengthen the bond with the university and with Tartu. The university is as influential as its alumni. Urmas Klaas is convinced that more needs to be done to realise this potential.  

But why come back to the university? When people leave the university, they take knowledge, skills and contacts with them, and develop and enrich these with life experience. By returning to the university and sharing with young people their education blended with life experience, not only the students become wiser and richer, but also the teachers. Teaching makes you see life from quite a different angle. Urmas Klaas has already given back a lot to the university, having worked as a lecturer at his alma mater for nearly a decade. The idea of returning to university in an academic position has sometimes crossed his mind, perhaps taking teaching bites, which is possible nowadays.  

Studying at university is not just a narrow professional journey. It may open doors in various directions. Urmas Klaas has experienced it, as he turned from a historian to a journalist, and from a journalist to the mayor. 

The University of Tartu organises its alumni get-together "Back to the university” on 18 May 2024. During the reunion day, our alumni can meet lecturers and former fellow students, visit familiar study buildings and lecture halls, participate in the university debates at Tartu [pre]opinion Festival, a sing-along and the grand party in the university’s Sports Hall in the evening. Tickets at the rate of 45 euros are available until 17 May. 

Vilistlaste kokkutulek

See photos and videos of the alumni get-together

2024. aasta orienteerumisrajal saab (taas)tutvuda ülikooli ühiselamutega

The 2024 orienteering course (re)introduces you to university dormitories

Tartu Ülikooli peahoone

A tour of the main building