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Massey Award winner Runberg: Anchored to the task

Most boys dream of what they want to be when they grow up. Policeman. Fireman. Maybe even president.

Most boys end up letting go of their dream somewhere along the way. But Bruce Runberg, growing up in Minneapolis, Minn., managed to hold tight to his.

Since the time he was in junior high, he knew he wanted to go to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. And from that point forward, he focused on doing what it took to get there.

Nearly 40 years later, Runberg is now charged with carrying out a different kind of dream, the University’s dream to make its campus big enough and modern enough to accommodate a growing number of students and an ever-expanding mission.

It is a daunting task, even for a guy who has been building things most of his life, a task he approaches with a mixture of excitement and fear.

“The bottom line is we have an excellent staff that will be challenged by the magnitude of the bond work, but clearly has the capability to do it well.”
Playing fireman

Many people in academia like to think they have career military men pegged.

Military bearing, some would have you think, is overbearing. Too quick to give an order, and too reluctant to lend an ear.

Runberg, a lanky, soft-spoken man, shattered that stereotype soon after he came to work at Carolina in the fall of 1992 and stepped into an ongoing controversy involving the University-owned cogeneration plant on Cameron Avenue.

The contractor began work on the plant in fall of 1988. By January 1992, the contractor was nearly a year behind. During this period, the plant operated below acceptable standards and was too noisy.

By that time, the lingering problems with the plant, which turns steam into heat and electricity for University use, had left nearby residents boiling.

Runberg will never forget that first meeting he had with an overflow crowd of those residents at the Carolina Inn.

Also present at that meeting was Ray DuBose, now director of Energy Services, who managed the cogeneration systems at the time.

DuBose said Runberg was going to have a tough time with residents at that first meeting no matter what he said or did. But the fact that Runberg made himself available to meet again and again with residents, and hear their concerns, did end up making a difference, DuBose said.

DuBose said Runberg’s first task was to help resolve the mediation process between the University and the contractor. The second task was to keep residents informed about what was going on. Both tasks, DuBose said, required Runberg to have a huge amount of patience and perseverance and long conversations with everyone involved.

Over time, the dispute with the contractor was settled, and the frustration that residents had with the University gave way to not just grudging acceptance, but trust.

There is an inherent tension when a plant like this is stuck in a place so close to where so many people live, and there is nothing anybody can do to make that tension go away. But Runberg believes maintaining open communications with residents is the only way to keep that tension at a level everyone can live with.

Two years ago, for instance, Runberg and his staff met with residents for 15 consecutive Wednesdays to discuss plans for new silos at the plant.

When the time came to make a decision, there was only minimal opposition.

In April, Runberg received the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award for the range of contributions he has made during his tenure as associate vice chancellor for facilities services.

The citation also recognized Runberg’s work leading planning studies for two outlying areas, Mason Farm and the Horace Williams property off Airport Road. The Town of Chapel Hill adopted a resolution praising Runberg for his consensus-building work with community members.

“I tend to get along with most everybody, which is helpful in these kinds of situations,” Runberg said.

Runberg wants people to know, too, that he didn’t have to unlearn what he was taught in the Navy. Anybody in the modern military knows that leadership is not about tapping the brass on your collar and telling people what to do.

“You wouldn’t be successful in today’s military being an autocrat,” Runberg said. “You’ve got to be a sound leader who can get people to do things willingly. Leadership is somebody who looks after their people. And listens to their suggestions.”

DuBose knows all about the stereotype about retired military, too, but neither Runberg nor the other retired military he works with fit the mold.

“Bruce is a good delegator, and he expects people to handle things,” DuBose said.

“I like having the responsibility. He’s not overbearing in the least, but his expectations are high as they rightfully should be at a university of this stature. He expects us to be the best.”

Nobody here will soon forget the record snowstorms last January.

For Runberg, it was the worst of times and the best of times. The worst of times because there were 20 inches of snow on the ground that shut down the University for one of the few times in its history. The best of times because the worst of times have a way of bringing out the best in people.

It wasn’t just the grounds crews, either, Runberg said. It was housekeepers, electric distribution crews, maintenance shop craftsmen and others who came to work without being asked and did the jobs that had to be done without being told.

“That’s what I like about the spirit of the folks in Facility Services,” Runberg said. “Unfortunately, too often, it’s not readily recognized.”
Landlubbing Navy man

He is who he is, has gone as far as he has, he will tell you, not because of any special qualities he was born with, but because of the values of responsibility and accountability instilled in him through what he calls his “typical Midwestern upbringing.”

His parents married in 1941 months before the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor. His father enlisted days after Pearl Harbor and trained to be a diesel mechanic. He was aboard a destroyer in the Pacific when Bruce was born on Dec. 31, 1942.

The father would not get home to see his son until after the war ended three years later.

And while the father left the Navy after the war, the Navy never left his son’s imagination.

When Runberg’s father was a boy, he romanticized about what it would be like to be a cowboy in the old West. Being on a destroyer in the Pacific during the biggest war of the century gave him excitement enough. Years after leaving the Navy, Runberg’s father still talked to Bruce about the sense of adventure he had felt in those heady days at sea.

For a boy growing up in the 1950s, the old West was something you watched on Saturday morning TV shows with Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger, shows where the good guys always wore the white hats and were the fastest on the draw.

The real cowboys and Indians, in those Cold War days, were the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Servicemen aboard a U.S. submarine or battleship knew when they patrolled the open sea that they could bump into an enemy with weapons as deadly as their own.

About the time Runberg entered high school, the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the space race had begun.

Sputnik also triggered a growing interest in the sciences in classrooms across the U.S., but not for Runberg. He had always been more interested in mathematics and that interest continued even after he received a hard-earned Congressional appointment to the Naval Academy.

Even through all the miseries inflicted upon him his freshman year, he knew he was where he was meant to be.

He had to walk the line like other plebes, had to be prepared to recite the newspaper to an upperclassman questioning him over his breakfast.

“It was a trying experience but very much a molding experience with value,” Runberg said. “From the very day you enter the academy, it creates a feeling of being a member of a team. It makes you think under pressure, and it instills the principles of duty, honor and loyalty.

“I was in there with 1,000 other people, and your whole class goes through the same thing. That really brings you together as a class because everybody got a bit of the pain.”

By his senior year, his interest in mathematics had led him to engineering and the decision to join the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps.

It was a job that would take him all over the world, and kept him grounded ashore.

His task was to build whatever needed building at Navy bases from Scotland to Japan. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam, including two with the Seabees, a unit that John Wayne immortalized in the movie The Fighting Seabees. For Runberg, life in Vietnam did not match the movie.

He was there to construct facilities and roads for both the Navy and Marines. But like his father, he doesn’t like to talk much about his war experience.

“I did my service,” Runberg said, and left it at that.

What Runberg will talk about more is the day in December 1982 when his father joined him in Pearl Harbor to go out to see the Arizona Memorial. For two years before that visit, Runberg had served as the resident officer in charge of construction for the “shore side facility” that included a museum and waiting area for visitors to take a launch out to the memorial site half a mile away.

Runberg made sure that his father got the VIP treatment. Tour guides escorted him around like he had been a royal admiral during the war.

Runberg is older now, and time has faded any memory of the words exchanged between father and son that day. But time has also given Runberg the perspective to see that day with his father as one of the proudest moments of his life.

“It was a very special day,” Runberg said.
The job left to do

Others may say Chapel Hill is closer to heaven than any place they have even been.

Runberg and his family have been more places than most, and for them, it has become the one place that truly feels like home.

Runberg has been at Carolina, at the same job, for eight years now, or longer than he has stayed anywhere since grade school.

Being here for so long has allowed him to do the things he never could while on the move, such as serving on the town’s planning board the past four years.

It is here, too, that he and Cynthia, his wife of 31 years, finished rearing their two boys, Trevor and Courtney.

While his father did not spend much time in the water in the Navy, Trevor did as the All-American captain of the Carolina swim team. And whenever there was a meet, Runberg made sure he was there to see it. Trevor graduated from Carolina with a business degree in 1998 and now works for an investment firm in Raleigh. Courtney lives and works in Chapel Hill.

Eight years ago, when he started, the capital projects on campus averaged about 35 a year in design construction.

In 1999, there were more than 80.

The $3.1 billion bond issue for state universities and community colleges will bring nearly $500 million to campus over the next seven years, money that will be coupled with another $500 million from non-appropriated sources.

The infusion of money will not just add to the number of projects over the next seven years, but to the size of those projects.

Part of Runberg’s task will be to make sure the bricks and mortar go up in the right places on time and within budget.

He has to worry, too, about the availability of contractors and designers given all the

construction projects that will be going on throughout the Triangle and the state.

Another part of the job will be to get people on campus to accept the reality of the inevitable inconveniences that all the construction will create.

“There will be some disruptions,” Runberg said. “But the bottom line is we will have some significant long-term gains. Our goal will be to involve people throughout the campus in the process and communicate the details of each project.”

It’s a big dream.

It took the work of a lot of people to take it this far. But for Runberg, the fun has just begun.


Originally published by University Gazette: Nov. 22, 2000

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