One-on-One with Richard Reynolds


Richard Reynolds interned at a student union at TCU in college and was hooked. He has worked to keep Iowa State’s Memorial Union serving students and the community for more than 10 years as the director of the MU.

Max Dible

Richard Reynolds has been the director of the Memorial Union for more than 10 years. He works in all parts of the MU to bring students, faculty and community members all the services that can be found in the building.

What is your personal work history and how did all of that lead to you ending up here as director?

I started out wanting to go into counseling at a college level, so I entered a masters program in student personnel services at TCU. I earned my masters and while I was there I did an internship in the student union. I was hooked from that point on. I left TCU after a year and went to Texas A&M university. I started there in an entry level position in the Memorial Student Center where I stayed from 1978-86. I left Texas A&M as associate director and I primarily worked with student organizations in that role. What I wanted to do was the get the experience of how the operations of a union worked, so I applied and took a job at [University of Wisconsin] Eau Claire. There I was the associate director as well, but it was for the operations of the union — the budget, financial planning, the facilities maintenance and upkeep as well as contract management with the food service company. We also had a self-operated bookstore, etc., so I got that level of experience. I am from Texas originally, and the University of Texas San Antonio was a growing urban campus that had an initiative to add 100,000 square feet to its existing union. I went there in 1992 and [stayed] until 2003, serving as the director of the Union Center. My wife is from the Midwest originally and missed the Midwest, and I had heard such wonderful things about Iowa State University. The reputation of this place extends well beyond Iowa. It is internationally renowned, and when the position here became available I talked to my wife about it and was fortunate enough to get the job in the fall of 2003. There are basically two sides to what I do. One is working with student organizations and the programs that occur within the facility. The other is working with the facility itself. I have tried to manage my career so that I had a variety of experiences that led to being the director at Iowa State University and working in this beautiful building.

What are some of the broad strokes of your position as director?

The Memorial Union was founded to serve students in the campus community, so when it comes to the meeting room function of what we do here, the first priority is to serve the student organizations. In terms of other users of the facility — those are the people who are not affiliated with the university directly in terms of funding — we do wedding-related events and we have Odyssey of the Mind in the Memorial Union as well as many other [events]. Users who are not directly affiliated with the university pay for the use of it, and that helps support our budget. This is a wonderful facility, which was opened in 1928 and has had 11 additions added on to it, so sort of in a broad stroke what we try to do is update the facility incrementally as our budget allows. One of the things we are engaged in right now is the renovation of the parking ramp that started last week and will go through probably the middle of October. The parking ramp is a revenue generator for the Memorial Union, which helps keep student fees down, and we use that source of revenue to offset any student fees we might need. Managing that project is one of the things we do. We are also trying to make the building more energy efficient, so we have added controls to air-handler systems. We have 14 air-handler systems because of the 11 additions and some of those date back to 1953, which is when I was born, so I know they are pretty worn out at this point in time. We try to also replace light bulbs with LED lighting just to make this a greener building overall. Another [big aspect] of the job is working with student organizations. The Student Activities Center falls under my purview, so I get involved in policy discussions related to student organizations’ use of the building as well as the broader campus. One of my staff members works directly with the Event Authorizations Committee to help student organizations plan events that are safe and that are inviting to all students or the public if that is what the events are geared toward. So policy is a big part of what we do. Then also, I advise GSB as time permits and was one of the advisers to Veishea. I have also started as an adviser to Best Buddies and I try to stay engaged with student organizations as best I can as time permits.

What are some of your favorite yearly traditions?

The one that has been re-instituted since I arrived is the Gold Star Hall Ceremony. We try to have that as close to Veteran’s Day as we possibly can, and in that ceremony we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. We engrave the names of those who are honored in the ceremony in the Gold Star Hall itself. That ceremony is really meaningful because in some cases it finally brings closure to the families that have lost loved ones in the theater of battle. If we have not had any casualties in the recent conflicts, we go back to the previous wars we have been engaged in — all the way back to World War I — to find people who were not honored as individuals. What happened initially was the names were put on the walls in mass and there was not a specific ceremony to talk about the individuals, so what we are trying to do is over the course of time recognize all the individuals who are on the wall. The person from WWI was identified by an alum who works on the Gold Star Hall Committee and it was just an incredible thing. We had his grandchildren attend the ceremony and it was healing for them. They actually learned some things about their grandfather’s service that were not part of the family history or that they had not heard about, so that is a really significant event. Then we have our annual birthday bash. The MU opened Sept. 23, 1928, so that is when we celebrate, and that is basically a free chili supper. Somehow Wisconsin cheese soup got thrown into the mix so we have that as well as vegetarian chili and regular chili. That is not really a program, but just an open invitation for people to come to the Great Hall and enjoy it. The Zodiac is really interesting to me and I honor the tradition of walking around it, but one of the funniest things I have seen since I have been here is right after a young man finished his finals he started jumping up and down on the Zodiac and said, “You do not make a difference anymore!” Also, we host a lot of the student organization events which have become kind of traditional. Cyclone Idol started the spring before I arrived here. That is part of the Veishea celebration each year and hopefully that will continue whether Veishea continues or not. We also host Dance Marathon and that is a phenomenal event. The great blood drive is a traditional event in the building also. The M-Shop celebrated its 40th anniversary this year too. That is a phenomenal facility and its history is just incredible. The concert that I enjoyed the most because of my age was Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship, who came the spring before last. There was not a person in the house that did not have gray hair, but it was a wonderful experience. The M-Shop hosts a variety of artists, as well as upcoming artists, and it’s a wonderful tradition on this campus.

How does the MU function as a part of the Iowa State and Ames communities?

We are a community center, which is the best way to capture what we do. The University Lectures program hosts most of [its] events in this building and we are honored to have them here. They bring such luminaries to campus of international acclaim and local acclaim, and they host about 150 events in this building annually, so the Ames community as well the campus community are both very much involved. We host community events in the building as well. We have had open forums in the building and we are also a voting facility during election times … so I really feel like we are a glue that brings the Ames community and the campus community together for a variety of occasions. The fall [seasons] that are the busiest are during election seasons, and one of the things that excited me when I looked at this position was just knowing that candidates from all political parties at some point and time would make an appearance on campus, many times in this building. We have the honor to host those events, which bring in a large number of community members as well.

What is the most rewarding part about doing your job and what is the most challenging part?

The most rewarding part is working with students who are so incredibly motivated and enjoy what they are doing. Just looking at the number of hours they spend outside of class in their co-curricular involvement and then seeing that they are still able to maintain their grades is incredible. I work with a great staff here as well. We are fairly lean in terms of the number of staff members we have, but we make events happen. We are open 24/7 and we close very rarely. We may close during the winter break or Thanksgiving break for a couple of days, but generally speaking we are 24/7/365. We have student building managers who are here about 16 hours a day, and they serve as our eyes and ears during those 12:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. hours. They do a phenomenal job. The people and the relationships make this job the most rewarding for me. The structure of the building when I walk in the Gold Star Hall and I look up at how those limestone blocks are assembled and what wonderful Iowa artisans put those together in 1928-I am in awe of the building from the north face and I am really proud to work here. The most difficult part of the job is that this building was built for about 12,000 students and we are now at 33,241 students, so space is the issue. Everyone [on campus] is having a space crunch right now. The first priority for meeting room space goes to student organizations, secondly to campus departments and thirdly to off campus users, but trying to accommodate everybody’s needs is becoming more and more difficult. We are kind of atypical as a student center in that we do not preset rooms and say to users that they must take the room in [a specific] configuration or not use it at all. We custom fit every room for each user except for those rooms that have conference tables in them. Office space is difficult to find on campus as well. I am proud to say that the Veteran Center is located here, but the people that have found the center are running out of space. When you go by there at lunch time any day you have a larger and larger number of veterans enjoying each others’ company and engaging in conversation with our Veteran Service Coordinator, so they need more space. With the increase in international students on campus our International Student and Scholars Office is in need of more office space. We have worked with them to create as many offices as we can, but they are running out of space as well. So space is the issue and we continue to work creatively to provide the space for people, but that is really the biggest challenge that we face at this point in time.

Are there more additions on the horizon?

We have a list of things that would be very helpful to us in terms of accommodating space needs. What we are doing this summer through the fall is retaining an architectural firm — Envision Architects — to do a feasibility study to look at what the needs are of the current occupants of the building. I did not mention greek life, but the greek affairs area continues to grow in terms of the number of chapters on campus, and they probably have a need for additional space. What we are asking the architects to do is to interview all those who currently occupy this building to see how their space needs can be accommodated. Then from that study, we will determine what areas we can or cannot accommodate to the fullest extent and look at the feasibility of adding onto the building. Any addition to this building would probably have to be funded by student fees, so it needs to be something students are comfortable with. Everyone knows that tuition fees keep going up and up, so we are going to do the best job we can of trying not to expand right now and trying to accommodate the needs within the existing facility.

Where does the budget for the MU come from?

We receive about $2.6 million in general funds from the university and our total budget is around $6 million, so the additional money comes from rent that the tenants in the building pay. The bookstore pays for the space that it occupies and the union marketplace pays for the space it occupies. Panda and Subway are franchise operations, so they pay what is called a common area maintenance fee, which is two percent of the sales, and then the other commissions that they pay [are paid] directly to ISU dining. If we have a year where we have open positions, for example if someone resigns, moves on or retires, it takes a while sometimes to fill that position. That salary savings is used toward major projects in the building. That is how we have been able to afford updating the controls on the air-handler systems and the revamping of the parking ramp, which has all LED lighting now. We basically try to use any additional income to provide renovations to this building. The other thing that helps us with the increase in enrollment is that we do receive a total of $27.55 per student per semester to pay for the 2008 renovation and for the Multicultural Center. As we have more students enroll, we have additional funds available. The parking ramp renovation right now is being paid for out of money we have accrued over several years and put into what we call our capital reserve account so that we could go through this renovation at this point.

What was the idea behind the MU at Iowa State before it was built?

The moniker ‘Memorial’ came about as a result of WWI because there were so many young people’s lives lost during that war. Also, in conjunction with the war was the epidemic of flu that killed a lot of service people who were not killed in battle. Campuses were going through this major period of loss and feeling of loss. The Iowa State Daily [then the Iowa State Student] actually published an opinion piece on Nov. 17, 1914, suggesting that the university build a memorial to those who were losing their lives in service to WWI, so there was some conversation about it that started in 1914. Then interestingly, in 1919, the University of Iowa said it was going to build a Memorial Union and was going to raise $1 million dollars. Exactly a year later to the day, Iowa State said it was going to raise $1 million to build a memorial of its own to those who had fallen in service to their country. If you go throughout the Midwest specifically, you will find that wanting to honor those who lost their lives was the impetus for doing the projects on campuses to build memorial unions. The title of ‘Memorial’ has stayed with unions that were started even beyond WWI. The notion of a community center on college campuses goes back to colleges in England in the 19th century. However, they were not called memorial unions. In some cases, they were just social organizations that met in a specific facility, but those facilities were not specifically dedicated to what we do now.

What is the most important thing that students coming into Iowa State should know about the Memorial Union?

The most important thing for students to know is that we have the Student Activities Center downstairs. That is where they can get involved and get engaged with the campus and start meeting people from the very outset of their college experience here. The building will serve the purposes for the student organizations once they become involved. The way I like to characterize this building is it is older, but it has a comfortable feeling to it. It is sort of like the feeling you would get if you went to your grandmother’s house — hopefully a sense of comfort and belonging and being welcomed to come in and utilize the facility whether it is for study, for planning an event, socializing with your friends or just hanging out. We want to have the same sort of comfortable environment. I would emphasize too that this is for them as students to use as fully as possible, and we will do what we can with the staffing we have to make their events the best possible events that can be produced.

If you could pick one event that has never happened here that you would like to see, what would it be?

Wow. That is a difficult question. As you first walk into the M-Shop and as you look on the righthand side wall, there are black and white pictures of the artists who appeared in the M-Shop in its early days. Arlo Guthrie is down there and there are a variety of others. What I sort of dream of is if there was some way to bring those people back — now some of them are no longer living, so that is not possible — but to bring those people back for a weekend or for a whole week of concerts. That would serve the community purposes, and again, there would be a lot of people like me with gray hair attending the concerts, but it would also impress upon people the variety of music that has been provided at the M-Shop, the level of artistry of those who have who have been brought into the M-Shop and the legacy that the M-Shop has established. That has been my dream — to find all those people and be able to afford to bring them in and have a weeklong celebration for the M-Shop.

What are some of the craziest things you have seen in the MU?

Right before graduation I was coming back from a meeting in Beardshear [Hall] and a young man took his shirt off and did a belly flop into the Fountain of Four Seasons. It was quite loud and he splashed the people sitting nearby, but that was his way of celebrating and he was enjoying himself. The people who got splashed on seemed to enjoy the experience as well. There have been some neat, sentimental things that have occurred in the building also. One young man asked if he could have access to the Great Hall. He said he did not need anything set up, just time in there. About an hour later, he and a young woman walked up on the stage and he proposed to her. They met during an event in the Great Hall and so he felt like that was the appropriate place to propose to her. As far as we know, she accepted the proposal, which was wonderful. There are also stories about having ghosts in the building. We say the one we have is a friendly ghost. We have staff who work in the evenings who have heard various noises in the building and we have identified that ghost as being Hortense Wind, who is the only woman on the wall [in Gold Star Hall]. She was a dietician in Europe and she died of influenza while she was in active duty serving on a military base over there. So we say it is Hortense, who is tired of being surrounded by all these men and is wandering around looking for some reasonable conversation with [women]. Whether it is real, who knows, but it lends to the mystique of the building.

Do you have any final or concluding thoughts to add?

The only thing I would add is as I said, I am very proud of the opportunity to work at Iowa State and at this facility with the students, staff and faculty of this institution, as well as the community members. It has been very rewarding and a very collaborative experience. We could not do what we do if it were not for the student employees we have and the student volunteers that we have engaged in our efforts. This facility is for students, the idea was initiated by students and we want to continue that mission.