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E. Gordon Gee

Quick: Name the most well known university president in existence. Before your brain even begins to form the double Gs, you’ve already constructed a visual... ...the argyle socks, the bowtie, the simple eyeglasses – and the affirmed, affable smile permanently formed on the lips of Elwood Gordon Gee. That mouth has delivered more than a [...]
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Quick: Name the most well known university president in existence.

Before your brain even begins to form the double Gs, you’ve already constructed a visual…

…the argyle socks, the bowtie, the simple eyeglasses – and the affirmed, affable smile permanently formed on the lips of Elwood Gordon Gee.

That mouth has delivered more than a few miscalculated quotes over his three-and-half decades as an administrator, such as “we do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor,” describing his job as directing “the Polish Army,” or “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday,” the latter of which was reported by the Associated Press last May from a December 2012 meeting of OSU’s Athletic Council. He resigned from this second stint as the university’s president days later.

Yet, it’s still Gordon’s mouth that is the best tool in his bag. His unmatched ability to engage has enabled him to become one of the most gifted fundraisers in the country – in higher education or anywhere. And often, those he’s offended have become the benefactor of his fundraising, too.

Just days after he accepted the interim presidency at West Virginia (where he started his career as the nation’s youngest president at age 36), Gee closed the oft-revolving door of his office in the new Center for Higher Education Enterprise (where he shares a wing with John Glenn) for an hour with (614). He will return this summer to continue work on the Center.

In an hour, quite a bit gets left on the cutting room floor (his divorce from his second wife, the privatization of several factions of Ohio State, like parking and licensing). In the absence of a complete biography session, what remained was a congenial, confident 69-year-old Gee, unafraid to reflect on his mistakes and eager to embark on a new phase of life. Instead we focused on his “positive midlife crisis,” humor, and his uncompromised sense of self.

We began in the most appropriate way I could think of…

Tell me a joke.
Yeah, I think I’ll wave that one off right now. Maybe towards the end [of the interview], I may have a couple of them.

Does someone have to tell you what ‘retired’ means? I mean, are you aware you’re supposed to–
I tell you, I retired from the presidency, but I didn’t retire from the things I now think are important, which is the whole issue of education institutions in this country, the nature of what universities ought to be doing, my belief in the land-grant mission and reaffirmation of the land-grant institution as a leading force for change in the nation.

I never did have the midlife opportunities, so now I’m having a positive midlife crisis – I’m going back and doing things I wasn’t able to before. I’ve got a great new book on the politics of higher education coming out. All of these strands are coming together. None of these things I could have done while sitting in the president’s chair, because running Ohio State is a massive job. It leaves little for the conceptual nature of what I’m trying to do.

Are you saying that now you feel you have the ability to approach things more from a big picture standpoint, rather than be university-centric?
Right. The thing about Ohio State is it’s a marvelous platform. It’s one of the most accomplished universities in the country, but also it’s a six-billion dollar institution. The day-to-day business doesn’t allow you to step back one step. Besides, when you’re the president of a university, as I’ve discovered, what you say has consequences (laughs).

You get to be Gordon Gee a little bit more than Gordon Gee-comma-president.
Right – Gordon Gee commentator, Gordon Gee thinker…it’s very empowering to have a megaphone again.

Well, that’s exactly why I wanted to sit down with you now.
Now we can have the unvarnished version.

The elephant in the room was addressed early on, although it really isn’t much of an elephant. Across from us in Gee’s office, behind his desk, he’s framed a New York Times story that published his “Top 10 Gaffes.” Owning it, one would say.

Let’s go back a little bit. At 36, you were running a university…being honest, were you scared shitless or were you just like, ‘Yep, I’m the guy!’?
People in West Virginia took a great risk in putting a 36-year-old in charge, and now that I am 69, I would never put a 36-year-old in that position – what where they thinking? (laughs) I had to learn on the job and it was frightening. All of a sudden, I realized I was playing on a big stage and I didn’t have the experience or the maturity to do it. It matured me very quickly. You’ll be amused about this – so I’m three or four months into the presidency and these two guys come in. I thought they were really old – they were probably 40 (laughs). One was the chair of English and the other was the dean of the libraries and they said, “You aren’t doing very well.” I said, “Well, tell me about it.” I was really struggling. I asked why. They said, “Well, you don’t look, you don’t act, you don’t talk like a university president. You wear argyle socks, you go out and party with the students, you wear bow ties and khaki pants…

Khaki pants – the nerve.
So I thought yes, that’s right, my idea of a university president is a tall, gray-haired, distinguished-looking guy…so I tried to change for a long time, you know? Three-piece suit, trying to be a little bit more dignified, and two things happened: one, I continued to fail, and second, I was miserable.

So I figured if I’m going to fail at this, I’m going to fail having fun. Thirty-three years later, I’m a university president and those guys are dead (laughs). But there’s a point; that was a great learning experience for me. When I tried to be what other people wanted me to be, I was very uncomfortable and very unsuccessful. I’m a very quirky guy. I kind of view the world through a different telescope than other people do. Sometimes I insert foot in mouth…but humor is the antidote to a lot of things, and certainly I think it is one of the most important components of leadership. I really learned my lesson from that point on, and I have been very much an individual. Sometimes it’s been uncomfortable for me or for other people, but it’s something that’s been very important.

Ironically, many may associate your iconic bowties and socks with exactly how a college president dresses.
(laughs) Yes. I think one of the dangers of academic administration at the leading universities is [that] people become very gray, very non-descript. I joke about the road to becoming a university president now is offending the least amount of people for the longest time (laughs).

Well, now you get to be a university president again, so it seems to be working for you in the long run.
Well maybe I’m the last of the wild men. How does that sound?

I like that. Sounds like a Western.
We could make a movie out of that. You could star, and I can be a horse.

This is what it’s like to interview Gordon Gee. Quirky, as he said.

Clearly humor is a big part of who you are. Where did that come from?
First of all, I grew up in a very small town and I was kind of the ‘geeky kid.’ Therefore, in order to be liked, I had to figure something out; I couldn’t play football or basketball so I had to figure out doing something else that would be a bit endearing.

What’s interesting about you is that you’re both well known for being loose-lipped in public, but also known as a very gifted fundraiser. Do you ever want to scream, ‘Hey, you can’t have one without the other?’
I think that one of the things I have learned over time is when you make a mistake, apologize for it, try to learn from it, and try not to make it again. And I’ve made plenty. I mean, I certainly don’t defend the things that I do which could be offensive. On the other hand, my greatest strength is my ability to make fun of myself. And so, when you’re me, and in that kind of comfort zone, sometimes things do happen. As long as people are forgiving…I will say, for example, both the president of Notre Dame and my friends in the Catholic religion live by Catholicism, so they are very forgiving. And Sister Cecilia, who is the head of the Little Sisters of the Poor, I’m now her chief fundraiser. (laughs)

I feel very comfortable with who I am, which is very important to me. I don’t want to be someone in private that I’m not in public and visa versa. I want to be genuine and I want to be thoughtful and I want to be supportive and I want to be a person of character, but I want to do that on my terms. I don’t want to have someone telling me that this is what I ought to do.

If you’re the same person in public as you are in private, doesn’t that get exhausting?
It can be draining, but it can also be very energizing. My daughter always jokes that my idea of a quiet night at home is to invite 400 people over for dinner (laughs). I think that’s sort of a DNA issue in some ways, and over time, that’s part and parcel of having been a college president for so long. I’ve had my calendar guide me through half-hour meetings for seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You get very comfortable with multi-tasking. But, I take a lot of energy from what I do.

I should say so. Otherwise you’d be dead. Or at least sleeping right now.
Well, yeah. Plus, it would be more distressing to not like what you do. And the issue of balance is also important. I tell everyone I’m a workaholic, and people agree with me. But that is neither a mark of greatness nor a badge of courage. I think a lesson for younger people to learn is that they can be much more effective in their professional lives if they take care more time to be effective in their personal lives. We don’t often get that kind of balance. At least I didn’t, anyway, early on…

Can you elaborate? I know you’ve mentioned in other interviews that your daughter had to bear the brunt of that.
With my daughter…I was an absentee father, until after her mother died, I really was. But, after her mother died, I drug her along to a lot of things, which she now views as a privilege. But I think she never really did have real “teenage years.” Obviously, my first wife died of cancer, and I was not the attentive husband that I should have been with my second wife. We got divorced because we were in a polygamous marriage – I was married to the University, and I was married to her – and that put a strain on things. So, on the personal level, I continue to have much to learn, but I do think that a balanced life makes for a better human being.

Talk to me about faith. How has it evolved?
My faith remains very strong. I’m a devout Mormon; I don’t get a chance to attend formal religious ceremonies as much as I would like, with all my travel and obligations, but it really is an important part of my life. To really be engaged in the religion, it really has to engage as a part of one’s lifestyle. As a practice…I drink no alcohol. I drink no coffee…I do drink Diet Dr. Pepper, which I think there is a special dispensation in heaven for that. (laughs)

You live in the Short North now. Are you discovering a whole different life beyond campus now?
I am. I’ve just fallen in love with being in an urban environment; this is something I’ve always wanted to do. Ya know, I’ve lived in university museums for most of my life. It’s such a neat area. As far as Columbus goes, I suspect that are few, if any people, that are bigger cheerleaders for Columbus than I am. I returned because I love Columbus. I think it’s become one of the really remarkable cities in America.

Especially in the last five years…
And, of course, I take full credit for it (laughs). When I came back, it just blossomed! And (614) started to publish, too. I take all the credit.

Ha! This is back to that positive midlife crisis. These aren’t things you got to do when you were between 30 and 40.
It’s been a very affirming time for me. And, the thing I love about Columbus – in addition to just the energy of the place and the great people – is that, sometimes when one goes through a change like I went through, what happens is, when power goes, your friends go. And, in this instance, I’ve just found it to be the opposite case. My relationships with people could not be stronger. I think that’s endemic to the city, to an extent.

You’ve stood out from your peers in a certain way, by the way you embrace athletics. Is that something that has always been with you, even before Ohio State?
Obviously, I never played a thing…look at me (laughs). Maybe checkers…but I think that athletics is a very important component of a university – if we do it well, and we do it right. If we use it to tell the story of the institution, and build spirit…

I think Ohio State does that very well. I think we set a very high standard, if not the gold standard, for the relationship between athletics, academics, the culture of the university, and the people of the state. Sometimes, it’s overpowering. But I’ve yet to be able to entice 100,000 people to watch a chemistry lecture. I can get 100,000 people to come watch a football game, and use that as a storyboard for tying back the issues and opportunities and challenges of the university.

What was your college life like? Have you been to more college parties as a college president or as a college student?
Some people could say I have. I was a serious student. I was a serious student, but I wasn’t a serious University president. (laughs) So there ya go.

Clearly, you’ve embraced the notion of yourself as a personal brand – which as you state is just Gordon being Gordon. Still, that comes with it its own pressures. How do you reflect on that now that you’ve (essentially) retired?
I think a lot about that. The cult of personality can be great, but it can also be very, very detrimental. There’s a fine line in that regard. I don’t sit here and calibrate about it, but I think that the bottom line is that this is who I am. If I had not been blessed to be the president of these magnificent universities, I would still be this way. I think, at least, for me, knowing in my heart that I am genuinely who I am is an important component of who I am.

More important than your legacy?
Absolutely. I think we all start thinking, at my age, about whether you made a difference…but one thing I do know is, I did remain true to me. •

After six months at WVU, Gee will return to his office in Columbus. In the meanwhile, keep up with him at www.facebook.com/gordongee.

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Coronavirus

Penzone shares: what to expect with salons

Julian Foglietti

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With the closing of Hair Salons on March 18th, buzz cuts and bowl cuts have made an appearance on the heads of Ohioans, young and old. Luckily for those desperate for a do, Dewine has announced that hair salons may begin to reopen on May 15th. To guide us through the transition, I spoke with Debbie Penzone, President and CEO of Penzone Salons, about serving on the Governor's salon advisory board, dealing with the business effect of the virus, and what we can expect from hair salons moving forward. 

I understand that you served as the chair of the Governor's committee board regarding reopening salons. What did you do in that role? 

On the committee, my role was pulling from my experience as a cosmetologist and business owner to assemble a group of individuals that represent our business in Ohio. We had everyone from 10 person salons to one person barbershops. braiding salons and nail salons, to schools and three health commissioners. From there, the job was building an agenda and listening to members while consulting health professionals on how to expand upon existing sanitation guidelines.  The Ohio State Board of Cosmetology has been enforcing for years. Beyond that, it was a lot of keeping time, guiding the conversations, gathering information and reporting it.  We also wanted to build plans if something did happen in a salon, and make sure that everyone could abide by these practices so we can remain safe and open.

In what ways has the virus caused you to rethink the way salons will function moving forward?

One of the things we did was go through a COVID specific certification process with Barbicide, which produces a lot of the sanitation products already used in salons and barber shops. A lot of people don’t realize that in the Ohio Administrative Code, there are very specific sanitation guidelines that you have to follow when you get your license, and there is a major component of constantly learning new sanitation practices all the time. The main difference you’ll see is us taking that sanitation to the next level: social distancing between booths, or barriers put in place, as well as reduced capacities in many salons. There will be more emphasis on reducing contact points and sanitizing things like doorknobs and counters as well. The biggest change will be the way we interact with our clients. We're a very emotional industry. We’re huggers, and we’re very close with the people we work with. Our clients are like family to us, so having to distance ourselves and not engage in that way will be different. 

What has been the greatest challenge to overcome over the past months? 

It’s really been adapting to the constant change we're all facing. We might spend all this energy sharing with our team new knowledge, but the next week it will change again. It’s been difficult to coordinate and continue to train everyone and update them with the new practices, as well as provide support for them while we're all distanced from each other. We're all scared right now, and it’s important to not lose our community so we can give each other confidence in the direction we’re heading in.

What have you witnessed over the past few months that gave you hope?

The biggest hope for me was serving on this committee. I’ve always felt so strong about our industry, so bringing so many people together and supporting one another during this difficult time. This whole thing has really brought us together as an industry, and shown that we can work together to support each other and raise each other up. There's enough clients for everybody, and it’s beautiful to see the incredible diversity of salons and see us all coming together to work with one another.

Are you worried about customers returning?

We’ve opened our booking today, but were not opening on the 15th, because we want to have a few days to go over the new procedures with our teams before we start to bring clients in. Every salon will only be operating at 50% capacity, and then we’re extending the hours to make sure everyone has the same hours they used to, and some of them are already booked out to July.

What would you say to ease the concerns of customers?

Really that we’re regulated by the state board and have so many sanitation practices in place. We have printouts posted showing the guidelines for clients that come to the stores, and for those who are high-risk, we are opening up early so they can be the first people to come in right after the salon is sanitized. What's important to remember about salons is that the regulators randomly check our spaces to make sure we're complying, and as we build on regulations, these checks are going to be taken to the next level. 

As a hairstylist, do you see any hairstyle trends emerging from this?

I definitely think there's gonna be a boom for bobs and pixie cuts, ‘cause people are just done. Maybe some bold colors, because everyone just wants to come out and say, “I’m back, baby.” Maybe just a little more attitude with the cuts people are getting.



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Coronavirus

Meet the Saviors: from doctors on the front line to PPE makers

Mitch Hooper

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While searching for Columbus’ helpers, we found that they come in many different shapes and sizes. And this month, we are telling as many of their stories as we can.

These are the stories of the saviors on the front line, working at hospitals, and assisting patients on a day-to-day basis. Or these saviors are at home and providing essential resources to these same folks on the front line. These efforts are quite literally saving lives and risking their own in the process.

Saviors: Pauline Vales, COVID-19 ICU Nurse at Riverside

It was just a little more than a week before Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state would be going into social distancing orders when Pauline Vale and her husband had already begun leaving for a vacation to Texas. And when she returned home on March 10, the events preceding have been a rollercoaster ride of long days and nights, moments of sacrifice, and above all, bravery in the face of danger.

“We have to be mindful about what we need to do each time we enter a patient room because we can’t just run in and out when we need something. It’s harder to connect with our patients because they can’t see our faces, we can’t hold their hands without gloves on, and it’s harder for them to hear us talking through a mask,” Vales explained. “It seems like there is something new every single day, so we have had to adapt and evolve many times over in the last weeks. And there is just more stress and worry in general, but my unit has really come together as a team and done so many amazing things.”

The challenges are seemingly endless for nurses in the ICU like Vales. She said beyond medical professionals having limited contact with patience, hospitals are not allowing visitors unless it's a life situation or fits a different protocol.

There’s also the battle of resources; now more than ever, folks on the front line need protection like gloves and N95 face masks. Luckily, that call is being heard by larger corporations who can do something, such as Battelle. Battelle now works with hospitals, including Riverside, to decontaminate face masks for these front line workers.  And coincidentally, Vale’s husband works as a virologist at Battelle while she was also a former microbiologist for Battelle.

“I have been able to share my knowledge about virus research and testing with my co-workers at the hospital. It has been very helpful to understand the challenges in developing reliable testing and treatments,” she said. “When we first realized that PPE supplies were a real concern, we were worried about how we would be able to protect ourselves and still care for our patients. The relief of having enough PPE available was really palpable on the unit.”

Vales also faces challenges in her personal life. As a mother to a six-year-old boy, the outbreak of COVID-19 has severely changed his day-to-day without much preparation. Like most young children, social distancing is stopping him from going out and playing like he normally would.

“It’s difficult to convey the situation without scaring him,” she said.

But still, Vales and the rest of the team at Riverside continue to fight on the front line, day-in and day-out. And through all the adversity and tough times, she is still taking a moment to recognize the silver lining on these cloudy days.

“The outpouring of support for health care workers has been amazing and people have been so generous to our unit. We have gotten sweet treats, thank you cards, coffee, and so many encouraging words, which has been very much appreciated,” she said. “Different departments in the hospital have been doing kind things for each other, and our food service staff have been a huge support. I have seen many kind acts across Columbus as well. Food drives, to organizing financial help for families in need, to the support of local businesses. It has been great to see so many people doing what they can to help others.”

***

Saviors: Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP

Sometimes the battle against COVID-19 in Columbus means taking your talents elsewhere; and that’s what Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP, is doing. And even then, it’s an uphill battle.

“The toughest thing I’ve had to deal with is that I’ve been applying and registering to help New York City for multiple weeks,” Ulmer said. “But extensive red tape has prevented me from being where the healthcare workers are truly overwhelmed and need us the most.”

Ulmer specializes in emergency medicine here in Central Ohio. As someone who has worked on the front lines here, he’s been reminded of the importance physicians like himself can have—especially during an international pandemic. And all the extra steps medical workers have made to further protect their families, he said the outbreak has been eye-opening within his own life.

“I will never take for granted the impact and importance of being present for our families when we are home,” he said.

But, while there have been many struggles, he’s found the silver lining in moments like this.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve seen is that so many people appreciate the entire medical staff, not just us as physicians. There is an incredible workforce that collectively cares for patients. I am so glad they are being recognized and appreciated for the heroes that they are.”

***

Saviors: Kim and Kallie Mallett, Mask Makers

Life was normal for Kim and Kallie Mallett just a few months ago. While Kim worked at Burn Boot Camp, Kallie was busy as an American Sign Language interpreter. And then in a flash, as it has been for most of us, life was far from normal.

Gyms were one of the first of businesses to close due to COVID-19 so Kim was out of work. And Kallie was also temporarily laid off from her position. Though the financial losses have been tough to manage, the biggest thing the two said they miss is getting to interact with and help all the people they meet through their jobs. So it makes sense that the two found a way, even through social distancing and shelter-in-place, to help by making face masks.

“I have been sewing off and on for years so when an EMT friend expressed a need for homemade masks as a way to extend the life of hers and her fire stations N95 masks, we felt called to help,” Kim said. “We quickly realized how significant the shortage of PPE was across all essential workers and just kept going. In the three weeks we’ve been making masks, we have completed almost 700.”

Through mask making, they’ve been able to raise more than $900 in donations—$700 of which will be donated to the Mid Ohio Food Bank and the rest will be used to purchase more fabrics to make more masks.

“It’s been amazing to see Ohio come together and lend a helping hand to their neighbors—from six feet away, of course,” Kim said.

“I’m further reminded of how interconnected we all are and how we need to continue to rely on each other because we truly are all in this together.”

And of course, they’ve learned lessons along the way.

“I’ve learned to take it slowly and one day at a time,” Kalie said “I will be more appreciative of time with friends, the ability to workout with my gym family—really, just normal life in general.”

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Govt & Politics

NY Times lauds Dr. Amy Acton with video tribute

614Now

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If you live in Ohio, you'd have to have been living under rock these last 6 weeks to not know who Dr. Amy Acton is. Now the NY Times is making sure the rest of the country knows too with this nearly 7-minute tribute video titled, "The leader we all wish we had".

As the state's lead spokesperson on the healthcare side of the pandemic, Acton has received wide praise from both near and far. Despite recent protests that occurred outside of her Bexley home, most Ohioans believe she has been a shining star in these dark times.

She has a tribute t-shirt, "Not all Heroes Wear capes" created by Homage

Her own (Ok, Gov. Dewine too) tribute parody video

Her very own bobblehead from the Bobblehead Hall of Fame

A Facebook Fan Page with over 133,000 members

Here's our profile piece from the April issue of (614) Magazine - the cover of which is featured in the NY Times video. Very cool, Sarah!

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