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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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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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