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Massey award winner Luse pushes ‘living room’ atmosphere

Don Luse earned his Massey award in part based on the successful renovations of Memorial Hall and the Student Union.
Don Luse earned his Massey award in part based on the successful renovations of Memorial Hall and the Student Union.

It’s a long haul — in more ways than miles — from the dairy farm in western Ohio where Don Luse grew up to Chapel Hill. Everywhere he has gone, Luce has kept hard at work growing things for others only to find himself enriched.

In his 14 years of service as director of the Carolina Union in the Division of Student Affairs, Luce revamped the Carolina Union’s Performing Arts Series to draw new and untraditional audiences — University students with the Western Opera Theatre, for instance, or elementary school students living in public housing in Durham to the Dance Theatre of Durham.

Almost from the time he arrived, Luse began sowing the seeds for the dramatic transformation of two venerable, yet well-worn buildings. One was the Frank Porter Graham Student Union Building, at the core of student life. The other, Memorial Hall, a signature building on campus out of which so much music and dance and culture had flowed that it had come to embody, much like the Old Well and Old East and South Building, an integral, irreplaceable part of the University’s soul.

But unlike the Old Well, which serves only as an iconic symbol, Memorial Hall was a place where people packed to see world-class entertainment with second-class accommodations.

They did so without the comfort of air conditioning or adequate restrooms. Even worse, there were no backstage areas for performers. Light and sound systems were antiquated and the stage was too small to fit a full orchestra. The experience for audience and performers alike, it could be said, was both great — and terrible.

The Student Union was little better. Students congregated there, but there was a dark, dated, institutional look to the place that Luse wanted to see brightened.

Luse sees himself as only one of many who worked to make these projects happen.

But the people who worked with Luse see his steady hand tending to the details of these extended projects, year after year after year, as the reason the remade Student Union and Memorial Hall would turn out as well as they have.

And it was this recognition by his colleagues that helped to win Luce a 2006 C. Knox Massey Award for Distinguished Service.

One colleague, describing the renovation of the Student Union, said Luse insisted that the Union have a “living room” atmosphere to welcome students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds. “He shows an unswerving determination to make the Student Union a home away from home,” the colleague said, “but also creates an environment that fosters intellectual and aesthetic growth.”

As for his role helping remake Memorial Hall, one colleague wrote, “It was under his leadership that the three-year renovation project transformed Memorial Hall into one of the premier performance artist venues on any university campus.”

In yet another nomination letter, Luse was described as “a problem solver without fanfare who consistently looks beyond the boundaries of his job description to seek new and better ways to serve our community.”

Farm living

Luse’s father ran the farm but he looked to his two sons to supply the labor needed to keep up with the daily grind of chores.

On a farm, especially a small dairy that requires milking cows twice a day, there is no such thing as a day off, much less a vacation. In addition to the cows, they raised hogs and chickens and all the crops needed to feed them. Luse can still remember the big draft horses that his father used to keep to work the fields until he replaced them with a tractor about the time Luse started school.

To put cash in the bank, the family sold eggs. Luse remembers selling sweet corn along the road and his father sold seed corn to a seed-corn company. But it wasn’t until Luse reached high school that the family scraped up enough money to stop renting a farm and buy one of their own.

Farming so encompassed family life that for the Luses the Champaign County Fair, followed closely by the Ohio State Fair, surpassed Christmas as the highlight of the year. Luse showed dairy cattle through his 4-H Club until he was 17.

“That’s just how life was,” Luse said of the way he grew up. “And I couldn’t wait to get away from it.”

His mother was a schoolteacher just as her father had been, so Luse was pushed to work as hard in school as he did at home.

“Everybody loved my mother,” Luse said. “I think she was the world’s greatest third-grade teacher.”

And just like she urged her students to discover a love of learning, she pushed him to do the same.

At Bowling Green University, not quite 100 miles due north, he majored in history and minored in English without any idea of what he was going to do when he graduated. If there had been time to squeeze in art and philosophy, he might have minored in them, too.

But it was his student job as “the AV guy,” that put him on the path to his career.  In college, he was the guy who showed the movies in the student union, set up the overhead projectors and sound systems. After graduating, he went to the guy who ran the audio-visual department to thank him for giving him the job. About a week later, the man called him to tell him about an opening for an AV guy at one of Bowling Green’s regional campuses in Huron.

The campus consisted of two buildings that served some 1,800-commuter students. Luse, as only one of three administrators, did more than AV. He also handled inventory control, led visitations for admissions, and harking back to his days on the farm, even plowed snow off the parking lots in winter.

“It was a great education,” Luse said. “I learned how universities run.”

Four years later, he won an assistantship position at the student union at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. It was here he found out that managing college unions was a real profession and the one he really loved. In 1975, he left South Carolina for Indiana University, where he would work until coming to Carolina in 1992.

The student union at Indiana was one of the largest in the world, serving a campus with more than 32,000. But at Indiana, part of Luse’s job was to book conferences to keep a 200-room hotel filled, whereas at Carolina the students, not events, come first.

“This was someplace I wanted to be,” Luse said of Chapel Hill.

Fertile ground

A farm teachers many lessons, and for Luse he took away two that have come in handy in all the years he has left it.

The first was the value of putting in a hard day’s work.

The second was a keen desire to find more fertile ground than a cow pasture to sow his energy and ambition.

Here at Carolina, Luse will tell you, he has found what he was looking for all those years ago. He has been blessed over the years to work and for good people — from his boss in Indiana to his mentor at South Carolina to the students here who come up with the ideas that still make it exciting to come to work every day.

“There’s never a need to motivate students to do things,” Luse said. “The challenge is trying to keep up with them and to be there to support their ideas and to help them achieve things.”

Just about anything falls under the umbrella of what a student union can do. And that is probably why Luse likes his work so much.

“Nobody grows up wanting to be the director of a college union,” Luse said. “But they don’t know what they are missing. It’s a great job.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 11, 2006

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