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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Investing in the Future

When Robert E. Griffin gave $5 million to the University of Southern Indiana in 2014, he firmly declared the money wasn’t a donation — it was an investment.

The former president and CEO of Escalade Sports grew up in East St. Louis, Missouri, and learned the value of education early as he went on to receive a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, and a master’s of business administration degree from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. After graduation in 1960, Griffin placed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal announcing he was seeking employment. Evansville native Robert Orr, who later would be elected Governor of Indiana, answered his request and the two would become partners transforming Escalade, founded in Evansville in 1927 as Indian Archery and Toy Co.

As Griffin became rooted in Evansville, he met with then-University of Southern Indiana President Dr. David Rice who shared with him research backing up the claim that the Southern Indiana population was not well educated for the workforce.

When Dr. Rice joined USI in 1967, student enrollment was 922. Twenty-seven years later at his retirement, the university enrolled 7,443 students. Griffin’s admiration forUSI presidents continued with Dr. H. Ray Hoops, who fought to add academic programs such as an undergraduate degree in engineering, and Dr. Linda Bennett, who established the school’s first strategic plan. Enrollment at USI is nearly 11,000 today.

“I wanted to thank them for upgrading the quality of education in this part of the state,” says Griffin, who received an honorary doctoral degree from USI in 2003. “This was not a donation — this was an investment that will carry on into the future with the expectation that the university will continue to elevate and educate great students who will stay in Indiana and stay in this area and contribute to the quality of life. Education enables people to make better decisions. There’s not enough money to remedy bad decisions. Education can help solve that and prevent those decisions.”

The Griffin Center

▲ The Griffin Center can house meetings and workshops large or small. on the first floor is A private study with a fireplace, comfortable seating, a conference table, and pieces from the Carder Steuben glass collection.

On the west side of Reflection Lake looking toward the Liberal Arts Center on USI’s campus, Griffin’s investment in the university has taken a physical manifestation. The Griffin Center is a 14,000-square-foot meeting and conference space named in honor of the Robert E. Griffin family, whose leadership gift to Campaign USI: Elevating Excellence provided the funding for construction. In addition to this contribution, Griffin, his wife Judy, and their family have supported the USI Presidential Scholarship program since its inception in 1987. They endowed the Dr. John and Grace Helfrich Eisterhold Scholarship at USI in honor of Judy’s parents, and led a fund drive to establish the Robert D. and Mary Kay Orr Business Scholarship.

“The Griffin Center is a vision fulfilled,” said USI President Linda L. M. Bennett. “What has come to fruition is beyond our expectation. Due to the exceptional generosity of the Robert E. Griffin family, the Griffin Center will serve the university for generations not yet born.”

The building will house meetings for trustees, the USI Foundation, off-site corporations, student government, department workshops, weddings, and more. The center’s largest venue is the Great Hall, with space to accommodate more than 130 guests. Other available venues include a private study with a fireplace for small committee meetings, an atrium lobby, and multipurpose meeting spaces that can be configured depending on the group size and needs. The handicap accessible center is equipped with a full catering kitchen and kitchenette and can expand by using its outdoor space if needed.

“Hopefully this will inspire good decisions,” says Griffin, who has served as chairman of the USI Foundation Board of Directors and as a member of the Romain College of Business Board of Advisors. “You don’t have the pandemonium or chaos. You can park in a beautiful setting. You can come in and quickly feel at ease and get your mind cleared so you can think.”

Hafer designed the center under the leadership of associate architect Jack Faber. Site work began in December 2014 and construction broke ground in May 2015. A ribbon cutting was celebrated on May 6.

A Vision Realized

Take a right turn from Bent Twig Lane onto Griffin Way and follow Reflection Lake to a thick wooded area. As the road curves, a surprise awaits. After his decision to underwrite the project, Griffin walked USI and declared the best view of the campus was from the west side of the lake. After learning it was possible to build from a structural standpoint, Jack Faber and the team at Hafer began the planning process in 2014.

“The university was great about giving the Hafer team enough time and not rushing it,” says Faber. “It allowed us to create something that lived up to the gift and honor what the vision was for the building.”

“What we heard was Bob (Griffin) wanted to show how forward thinking the university is, how beautiful the campus is, and how to inspire someone to want to be a part of that vision, and see the campus and university grow,” says Faber.

Because there was no preconceived idea of what the building would look like and only a preconceived function, Faber says he enjoyed the creative freedom to design a timeless structure.

“Bob had such a strong vision and if you knew Mr. Griffin, he is a man of broad vision,” says David Bower, president of the USI Foundation. “Jack ran with the ball that he was tossed. It was a beautiful collaboration. Bob set the tone and didn’t micromanage. He said, ‘Jack can do this.’”

The Hafer team created a beautiful two-level structure using glass, stone, and white highly insulated concrete that blurs the lines between interior and exterior space. The materials were specifically selected because they are not associated with any particular style or age. Stone is used to tie the building to the landscape and diminish the mass of the structure. The color white was chosen to reinforce the contrast between nature and architecture, making the colors of the leaves, grass, and lake appear more pronounced and colorful, and allow the structure to be a canvas for artwork. On the west façade of the center is a commissioned sculpture titled Bent Twig by John McNaughton, USI professor emeritus of art, and Joan Kempf deJong, USI associate professor of art and assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Inside the building are pieces of Carder Steuben art glass that were donated to the University Art Collection by Alan and Susan Shovers and an oil portrait of Robert Griffin by Indiana artist Mark Dillman.

“The idea is that when you are in the building, you forget about the building,” says Faber. “It is all about the view of the campus. A lot of architects want you to notice the building, but everything subconsciously and consciously should refer you back to USI.”

The rooms are open and move fluidly from one to the other. Silver metal window frames are used to create the focal element across the lake toward the university’s skyline. The creative design eliminates the view of the parking lot and reveals only the treetops. A handicap accessible sidewalk winds through the woods and connects with the center.

Hafer also had to consider the neighborhood behind the Griffin Center separated by a thin tree line.

“When you are up on the main floor it looks like a single story building so in the wintertime when they look at the building, it doesn’t seem like this huge campus building. It is a nice quiet building. We had to work with Bob, the university had a conversation with the neighborhood, we had to listen and accommodate everyone. The more we talked, the more we were able to tweak it and develop it,” says Faber.

Empire Contractors Vice President/Project Manager Jason M. Martin and Project Superintendent Dan Odom served as the general contractors for the Griffin Center.

“The contractor Empire did an amazing job and it lives up to what the expectations were,” says Faber.

Success Breeds Success

▲ Bennett addresses members of the media, university, and community May 6. USI sponsored a competition seeking an outdoor art sculpture for the exterior entrance of the Griffin Center.

 “This facility is a sign of our maturing as an institution,” says Bower, who has been at the university for 22 years. “We are in the planning stages now for the Fuquay Welcome Center, we have another generous donor. The Physical Activities Center (PAC) renovation will be life changing. There is so much changing internally as well — we are growing as an institution. Part of what Dr. Bennett’s plan was when she became president was to elevate the entire academy and that’s happening; there’s more degree programs, more programs online. It’s an exciting time. It’s generating enthusiasm. Success breeds success.”

Bower and Faber hope Griffin’s investment will inspire others to make the commitment, which will help keep talented students in Evansville long after they have graduated.
“Once people come in and see what Bob has invested, they are going to want to invest,” says Faber. “And once they have invested, that money will be used to help with facilities, which is going to draw faculty and students, and those students graduate and develop businesses and they turn around and invest in the university that invested in them. As they do that, the skyline of the university changes. This really starts a momentum that never stops.”

For more information about the Griffin Center and the University of Southern Indiana, call 812-465-7149, email skrhoades@usi.edu, or visit usi.edu.

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