The Man Behind "The Heart of the Campus"
|Neale Roth's passion for making Kirby click with students has been the driving force of his tenure at UMD.|
The building's popularity didn't happen by accident. Roth has been tireless in making improvements and additions to Kirby Student Center to serve the needs of students. “My challenge was to develop Kirby as a facility that made students comfortable,” he said.
“When I came, the area had the ambiance of a high school,” he said. "Something had to be done." The building had cold terrazzo floors and a wall of lockers that made it look like a high school hallway. Roth came up with the idea of creating a lounge to give it a more of a welcoming feel. He added a music listening room with a record player. “Remember, it was the late 60s. We wanted it to be the living room of the campus. We wanted it to be comfortable,” Roth said. Most agree, Kirby still serves as the UMD "hang out."
Major changes to the campus began occurring in the early 1970s. The Darland Administration building was erected, which offered new space for Kirby programs to expand. However, there was a problem. A gigantic ramp between the first and second floors dominated the Kirby lounge area. “It didn’t meet code; it was too steep, and wasn’t being used,” Roth said.UMD removed the ramp and that allowed Kirby to establish an information desk and office space for Kirby administration. A games room was put into the basement below the Information Desk, along with a student TV lounge.
Extensive remodeling took place during this time as well. “We had Jack Thomas, a Duluth architect, help us with the design," he said. "We wanted it to to be friendly and warm. We created a series of meeting rooms with a ‘turn of the century’ feel by adding woodwork and display cases."
Roth never stopped on his mission to stay up-to-date and respond to students. Beginning in 1999, Roth was again the driving force behind a series of changes to the Kirby Student Center. "It was an amazing sequence of events." he said. "When one space was vacated, we would build something new."
First, UMD got a new library. That created a space for a new eating area. “The cafeteria concept was outdated so we designed a modern food court,” Roth said. "People want variety." The new area, housed in the annexed part of Kirby called Kirby Plaza, has proven to be a success. Thousands of students use the area each day to eat, study, and socialize.At the same time, Joe Michela, Director of Auxiliary Services orchestrated a deal between the Duluth Transit Authority and UMD to give UMD students free bus passes. A bus hub was put into the Kirby Plaza plans. The hub included a waiting area, and extra space on Kirby Drive outside for a bus boarding area. “It's been a phenomenal success,” Roth said. "Now, with rising gas prices and even fewer parking spaces, thousands of students ride the bus every day."
University for Seniors, an educational program for older adults, also gained a home when the campus remodeled Kirby Plaza. Roth had fostered University for Seniors for decades. He even gave them a small office for their first home. When new Kirby Plaza opened, University for Seniors claimed three classrooms and an office. The increased visibility has helped the program grow to its present size of over 300 members.
Roth kept pace with the times. He saw that there was a dire necessity for a home for UMD's diverse student body. He served on the team that established a new Multicultural Center in Kirby. “The student mix is always changing and there was a great need for a multicultural center on campus," he said. "We had fallen behind the times.” Space became available when the cafeteria closed and Roth and his team seized the opportunity .
The Multicultural Center opened in 2004, and judging from the number students who use it each day, it's extremely successful. "We've designed an environment for students of all backgrounds to learn about UMD’s diversity," Roth said. "It is always full of students and you can see there is a real sense of belonging." Advising and student offices were made for the Asian Pacific/Islander Learning Resource Center, African American Learning Resource Center, Disability Services and Resources, Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Services, Hispanic/Latino/Chicana Learning Resource Center, and International Student Services.
Roth regularly polls students. "We keep tabs on the changing student habits," he said. "Knowing our users and responding to their needs makes us relevant." Kirby still shows films and has pool tournaments but the pinball machines are out and the newest video arcade games are in. One of the most popular of Roth's innovations was a series called Late Nite Kirby. "The concept came directly from a student survey," he said. "After studying for hours in the evening, students need a break." Late Nite Kirby provides entertainment three nights a week. In addition to local bands and tournaments, games, like Grocery Bingo where students win grocery items, draw big crowds.
Throughout his tenure at UMD, Roth's voice has been clear. "Obtaining a degree is the number one priority at UMD, but students can’t study 24 hours a day," he said. "By providing a place to relax and have fun, we help students excel." Alumni remember their professors and classes, but they also remember Kirby.
Roth’s enthusiastic work on behalf of students is an inspiration. He will be missed.
by Cheryl Reitan and Thomas Gadbois
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