It has been seven years since Frank Brown retired as Columbus State University's president.
Since then, many of the seeds Brown planted have grown and flourished. Perhaps the biggest was the idea of a downtown campus.
As he prepares for his second stint as interim headmaster of Brookstone School, Brown sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to talk about the past, present and future.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
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How is retirement?
Retirement is actually great.
Except you can't seem to fully retire.
People sometimes ask, "How do you plan for retirement?" And my response is you don't plan to retire, you plan to move to something else. You can't work as long as most of us have been working all of our lives -- every day, without a break, even changing jobs, almost job to job -- you can't work that long with that kind of work ethic and then sit on the back porch.
You can't even play golf enough. You can't fish enough. You have to retire to something, preferably something you're interested in, something that can make a contribution to the community, and something where you can find some fulfillment -- something to get up for in the morning is very important.
You are about to start your second stint at Brookstone School as interim headmaster. How does that keep happening?
Well, it's more happenstance than anything else. The headmaster who left about a year after I retired, Scott Wilson, left to take a job back at his alma mater, and the board was in a position where they couldn't recruit a new headmaster quickly enough to start the school year. So, Scott suggested they ask me to fill in as an interim, which I was glad to do.
And truthfully, I just fell in love with Brookstone. It was an exciting year, the faculty is as dedicated as any you will find, students are bright and energetic and interested. It had a full range of sports programs, which kind of took me back to the 1950s. Friday nights at Brookstone is like I remember from high school -- all the excitement and the families and all of that interaction. Brookstone academically is very, very demanding, but it prepares students to go to schools where they might not even want to go sometimes.
The value sometimes is how many of your kids went to Ivy League schools. Well, that's not the issue. The real question is, how many of our students could have gone to Ivy League schools had they wanted to? And that's just about all of them. Where they end up going is a personal and family decision, not a Brookstone decision. But the opportunities they have because of their education, because of their preparation, just abound, and it is an exciting prospect to watch.
You have also gone into several volunteer roles in the community: the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the National Infantry Museum, the Community Foundation. What have your roles been with those organizations?
My role with the RiverCenter is an affair of the heart. When I was president at Columbus State we built the RiverCenter. And the reason the RiverCenter -- my view -- is as successful as it is, is that the city leaders had the distinct impression, correctly, that you couldn't build a beautiful box and have it sit on the corner all day long closed up.
If you're going to build this performing arts center, design it so it is open, living and breathing every day -- Bill Turner's words -- and the way to do that is to have the CSU School of Music resident in that building. So, that was the idea from the very start, and that's the way it works.
The Schwob School of Music keeps it alive and breathing. The RiverCenter has wonderful performances and presentations. We have guest artists, world-class individuals in Columbus who would not have come to see us otherwise. And when I retired as president, I had been on the board as ex officio because of my presidential position. I moved away from the RiverCenter to give the new president space to be on that board and not be in the shadows. And over time I began to sense that the RiverCenter really needed more involvement by people who loved it and I judged myself to be one of those people. So, I was persuaded -- it wasn't my idea -- to come back on the board, which I did three years ago.
You're looking for an executive director and are heavily involved in that search. What is the new executive director of that facility need to be?
We are in the early stages of the search. We have applications on hand, and we are looking for somebody who has an understanding of the performing arts center like ours, which is a free-standing facility. It is a self-supporting entity and there is very little tax money -- except for the hotel-motel tax which we take a share of -- very little tax money involved in its operation. It's all ticket sales and donations.
So, it requires a lot of personal attention, a lot of planning and designing, and careful selecting of programs. So, we need a director who can understand those functions and be a leader in running that kind of show. It would help if the person knows something about this part of the country, even preferably Columbus. It would be wonderful if the person has had the head role in a facility like ours, and that is a desire but not a requirement.
You got here almost 35 years ago. What did downtown look like?
It had fallen into disarray, especially because retail businesses had moved to shopping centers. So, what was left downtown were some businesses trying to make a go. Kirven's was still downtown when I got here, so there was a semblance of what had been in the past, but the traffic to support retail downtown was not there. People found reasons to go in other directions for their shopping.
So, we had a beautiful Broadway which was not deserted but infrequently visited by people in Columbus. The thing that I remember most vividly was that you couldn't find the river. The river was hidden behind a bank of kudzu, and we had some industrial operations along the riverbank right where the RiverWalk is today. So, the beauty of the river, while it was there, was largely hidden. And what we have today is in many ways based again on the reason Columbus is where it is, and that is the river is what pulled us to this point. Now the river is a major part of who we are and what we do, and that's wonderful.
If somebody had told you 34 years ago that CSU would have a thriving downtown campus in addition to a thriving Cody Road campus, what would you have said?
When I came here we were living in Houston, and at that time I was the chief financial officer of the University of Houston. Thirty thousand students on the edge of a dynamic city where the traffic will eat you alive, and a campus which was largely commuter but had some residential component, but big-time sports, big-time arts, just a wonderful campus. And when I came for my interview at Columbus College I landed at the old airport, which was not all that impressive.
I was picked up by one of the search committee members who gave me a quick tour of the campus. We drove through the campus and it was late afternoon, early evening, night students were coming in, so obviously we had a big evening program. The campus was very pleasant, almost in isolation, lots of nice trees, which I understand had been planted many years before, and consisted of buildings that could be identified by their structure as to when they were built.
There were a lot of flat roofs and not very inspiring shapes. The Fine Arts Hall was an exception. And therein lies the story. I was attracted to Columbus College because of the potential, and we as a family were ready to get back to the Southeast. Our families are all in Alabama so we wanted to come home.
And you were applying for ...
For the vice president for business and finance position. I couldn't have asked for a more receptive two days on campus. I came here on April 2, azaleas were in full bloom, dogwoods were still at their peak, and the first place they took me was through Green Island Hills where the azaleas were just overwhelming. And then up Hilton Avenue and through downtown Columbus. But they made a wonderful impression on me and I went back home and told Jo Ann, "This is for us." They then offered the job and we came.
I mentioned Fine Arts Hall a minute ago. Fine Arts Hall was an anomaly on the campus of Columbus College because of when it was built. Columbus College began, as most people perhaps know, as a two-year institution in an abandoned hosiery mill -- the Shannon Hosiery Mill on Talbotton Road was our home. A less than graceful way to begin a university, but a good foundation. From there, after five years, the campus was moved to some acreage on the edge of town near the airport, a former dairy farm which had nothing but rolling hills and few trees. Early pictures of that campus show three or four buildings huddled on a hillside on a bare acreage, which had been a dairy farm. It's the way the campus started.
But here's Tom Whitley, the founding president, he comes here to establish the college, he finds this abandoned mill and gets it going and brings in a strong faculty even in the beginning. And the students who went to that Shannon Hosiery Mill location today will talk about the good old days, because there was a closeness, a family feeling about the abandoned hosiery mill that you wouldn't find just anywhere. And then we moved to the campus and there were ambitions to do some things that a junior college might not ordinarily do.
A struggling junior college in a state system is going to get bare funding, and the funding has to be used for the essentials. You've got to have the reading, writing and arithmetic, faculty and basic studies, because you're going to be a transfer institution. You're going to prepare students to go on to another school for their four-year degree. Well, because of a lady named Ruth Schwob -- who was the wife of a local businessman, was an avid supporter of the arts, particularly music -- she began to push to have on the campus a fine arts hall, a performing center for music, art and theater.
And Tom Whitley, while he might have liked the idea, was pretty well bound by his funding; There was not much he could do with the funding he had to build a presentable fine arts hall. So, Mrs. Schwob and other leaders of the community raised private money. This is going to sound modest by today's standards, but my understanding is they raised a half a million dollars in private gifts, the federal government threw in a half a million dollars from the Foundation for the Arts, and then the state put in a half a million dollars. So, it was $1.5 million to build this facility.
That's pretty much been the formula for Columbus throughout.
It has been, and Tom Whitley's courage of putting scarce money into that facility in the early days of a fledgling two-year college is remarkable. But because he did and because Mrs. Schwob encouraged and persuaded him to do it, the Fine Arts Hall became the social center of the campus. It crowded into one building music, art and theater, and they had to share a stage, they had to share dressing rooms, they had to share rehearsal space, so it was always crowded.
But in later years, as I'll touch on in a minute, it became unbearable. But they built that hall and from that the music program was founded in a two-year school that was barely 10 years old. And because of the early start of the music school, it took on a life of its own, it gained quality and quantity over time, built a support base in Columbus that helped the college in all kinds of ways, and then when the moment came for a new performing arts center in Columbus, we had a strong thriving music program to live in it.
That's why the RiverCenter has succeeded. You can go back to Tom Whitley and Ruth Schwob to thank them for the center of arts that we have in this city.
What kind of courage did that take to do that in the 1960s?
It took a lot of courage. And Tom Whitley was not an artist, he was an educator. No doubt had an appreciation for the arts, but I think there was a lot more vision in that decision than you might imagine. And Ruth Schwob was no small factor either -- she was a very persuasive lady. I had the chance to meet her shortly after I got here and she was not in good health, but she was a force.
Without the community investment in Columbus College early on, does the university look like it does today?
No, it doesn't.
How is the university different from other universities in the University System of Georgia?
Well, it was considered always a local institution. I mentioned the bare hills of the former dairy farm. The trees out there today are magnificent because of two presidents. Tom Whitley, who enlisted the help of civic clubs to come out and plant oaks on that campus, many of which are still there thriving today, changed the whole face of the campus. And then Dr. Francis Brooke, who was my predecessor, had this vision of what the campus should be and had a massive program of tree planting, particularly oaks, which lined the major drives on the campus. Planted now 30 years ago and they are really taking shape and changing the campus forever. The foresight of those leaders, as illustrated by their physical plantings, indicates how the college has moved and succeeded over the years.
Is that a metaphor?
It is indeed. And it's akin to the wonderful saying of why you plant trees: "We plant trees, not because they are trees under which we will rest, but under which others will find solace and safety."
So, let's go back 20 years. You are president. CSU has all of these trees, it's growing, you're changing the name of the street from Cody Road to University Avenue so you won't be Cody Road High anymore.
That was a contrived act.
People called it Cody Road High.
They did, and in a loving fashion often, but that's what they said because it was seen as an extension of high school. The state was widening Cody Road, which ran from Macon Road to a dead-end on Gentian. They were going also to extend it across Gentian to lead into Peachtree Mall, which they did.
While they were in the process of widening that road, we began to brainstorm in our staff meetings about how we could play that to our advantage, and we said, "It's going to be a beautiful entrance; it's going to change the entrance to the college." Currently, the front door was off Lindsey Drive right adjacent to the interstate. We said, "It's going to turn into the campus; that is going to be the front door of the campus with that four-lane highway. We need to strike at this moment to change the name of that road to something that depicts" -- we were still Columbus College -- "a university, which someday we shall be."
So, we decided on University Avenue because avenues in this city run north and south, streets go east and west, and that was the north-south corridor. So, we said University Avenue. We got out and physically knocked on doors of everybody who lived and worked on Cody Road, and we said, "We are going to petition city council to change the name of the street; we want to have your support." And everybody, including businesses that had to go through the process of letterhead and address changes and all of those issues, said, "We'll go with you" -- except for one little organization that I won't mention, but today it is still called a "Cody Road" business, on University Avenue.
We petitioned it, went to city council, I think Jack Rodgers was our local representative, and city council passed it and it became University Avenue. Then the chancellor came down for a visit after the signs were up and he said, "I noticed the name of your street out here has changed for Columbus College. It says University Avenue." I said, "We're putting you on notice, Mr. Chancellor, we're coming at you."
That's one way to do it.
Yeah, it didn't work quite that smoothly but it started the groundwork.
Who was the first person who said you need to consider locating some of your programs downtown?
Here's the way that happened: I mentioned the Fine Arts Hall a while ago as a wonderful facility on campus which served a desperate need for many, many years. But as we grew, as music grew, as art and theater expanded, one building wasn't appropriate -- it wasn't good for those three disciplines to fight over, I mean literally vying for time.
When theater wanted to do a dinner theater, they had to take over the art gallery for the dinner before the play. And it made for a cozy little environment but you know the art people weren't happy about that.
So, you had turf wars.
Yeah, and you had vying for the stage when you were going to have your performances, and mostly we had cooperation, but it was a nuisance and we couldn't expand anymore -- we had no space. So, we needed a facility badly. At the same time the Three Arts Theatre, which turned out to have been a wonderful performance venue -- a former movie theater that the Three Arts League in Columbus had turned into a performing center which housed the Symphony -- the Three Arts Theatre was showing its age even though the acoustics were really good. It was a facility badly in need of something major. And the city was talking about widening Talbotton Road, which eventually we learned would mean having to take a portion of the lobby of the Three Arts Theatre off. So, the theatre would be right on the road. So, we're in need of a performance center, the symphony is need of a performance center.
So, who said downtown?
There was a consultant who was working with Uptown Columbus that had been formed by that time.
The guy's name was Rouse, I think, maybe from Boston. Nice guy, had some great ideas, and he was in town and someone called on his behalf to get an appointment with me because I had my group of CSU people and we were having meetings and luncheons and talking about where to put it on campus and where it would fit and how the city could use it.
And the city people were saying, "We've got to do something to boost Uptown; we need it downtown." So, he came to see me, and he's paid by the Bradley Company -- which is another way of saying Uptown Columbus. We had a nice conversation and he said, "We need to talk about the location of the performance art center."
I said, "Let's do." And he's very conciliatory and he said, "Your ideas are wonderful, they'll work, it'll enhance the college, but it won't do anything to help the city except it provides the symphony a place." He said, "It could be the key facility for revitalizing Uptown Columbus." And then he said, "Support for an Uptown location I can assure you will be much greater than support for a location on the campus." He was delivering a message from downtown leaders, and I said, "We'll think about it."
Was that a lesson for you in how Columbus worked?
It was a lesson for me that you don't have to be so pure in your decisions that people don't get full advantage of what could be. So, we called our group together and said, "This is what's going to happen and we can do it so we can have a presence downtown, and we can see the day that we'll not only have music but art and theater downtown as well. The music people were ecstatic, the art and drama folks were hopeful, but budgetarily we found we couldn't do more than music in that first phase.
Were you pressured?
No, no. It was a friendly conversation and it was never a threat, but this man was speaking a fact. Not necessarily he was told to say that, but he knew that there were a lot of folks who wanted to see downtown come back.
When was this discussion, early '90s?
It was obviously before we started the Columbus Challenge, which was the drive to build the center, early '90s.
When you walked out of that meeting, were you content to go downtown at that point?
I could see a grander vision for a facility, because we talked about a living, breathing facility, not boxed up, but a symbol of the institution in the middle of a busy downtown someday. So, it required very little compromise.
So, that was more than 20 years ago. If somebody told you now downtown would have a RiverCenter, CSU now owns the Leger-Enquirer property and is about to bring the College of Education down here
No, that was a bridge too far. That was among the things that could happen, but you have to remember what we were encountering downtown. We were going to build a place down here, we were going to renovate the Rankin Hotel which was in desperate need of work. The first floor was rented out, the second floor was give-and-take, but the third story was a war zone. We were going to renovate the Rankin for housing for our students. We were going to build new housing, so we were going to have 350 students, Columbus College students, living in the middle of downtown where people were afraid to go at night.
Yeah. I said, "Boy, how wonderful could it be?" So, you ask if there were apprehensions, there were. There were apprehensions about how quickly we could bring downtown back and apprehensions about safety for our students. Safety from the very outset was No. 1 for us. We knew that if we had a bad incident, not only would it be a tragedy for the student and for us but it would kill downtown.
One incident if it were a bad incident. So, we built safety in everything. Today, it's hard to get into some of our buildings -- you guys are security conscious as well. You just can't leave doors open like we use to. So, we had to put a police presence down here, and pretty soon that presence was patrolling downtown so we had to have a meeting with the police chief and talk about shared duties, how we can help each other, and that has always worked so well.
CSU is synonymous with downtown now, right?
It's getting to be that way, and part of that is because we had foresight to put up banners and signs which indicate we're here. That was a little bit of a fight, too, with Historic Columbus. The facade board had to approve everything we did, so you'll note the buildings that we have, the Rankin was no problem because we just restored the facade, but the two new dorms we built on the other side of Broadway we built to look like the Rankin as though they were 1920s construction with that facade because we wanted them to blend in with downtown and because the facade board was very interested in that.
Politics gets into it, but most of it is love of community. You can call it pressure, you can call it vested interest, you can call it many other things, but by and large what has made Columbus what Columbus is today is love of community.
Where does Columbus State University go from here? They're bringing in the sixth president now, Dr. Chris Markwood.
The fifth president. I think the future is and has been bright for CSU. We had a boatload of momentum going for a while when we did our second wave of downtown with art and theater in the old warehouses and the continued development of Uptown. The Capital Fund Campaign we had, which enabled us to purchase a residential facility in Oxford, England, one of less than half a dozen American universities with a residential presence in the site of the world's oldest English speaking university, is pretty doggone high cotton, and it is a wonderful facility and it has served us well.
But the people of Columbus gave us the foundational support to expand, to retrench, to rebuild, to rethink, and that rethinking is still available to us, though I worry a little bit about momentum because we have been divided on some issues in recent years. But, I think that future is still there. I'm encouraged by the leadership chosen as the next president. I think Dr. Markwood will be good for us.
Have you communicated with him?
We have communicated only by email, but we have had several exchanges and they have been very, very encouraging. He's excited. His family is excited. And he displayed himself in the interviews, particularly as reported in the press, as a person who understands community, who is looking for a place to be a part of, and has obviously a foundational understanding of a total university.
Yet, he wasn't a dean of a college. He was vice president of the entire school and he served an interim period as president or chancellor at one point.
So, you feel good about the selection.
I feel good about this selection although I haven't yet shaken his hand, but we have made plans to do that when he comes to town.
What do you think today when you walk through Downtown Columbus?
I think, where am I going to park?
You're to blame for that.
I know, but not me entirely. I won't take all the blame. Just like I won't take all of the credit. We collectively, not only people at CSU but community leaders, both elected and business and education leaders, had a view of what could be in Columbus.
It's faded from our minds a little bit now, but several years ago we went through a rebuilding of Broadway again with the median and trees and sidewalks primarily because we could see sidewalk cafes coming as they have continued to do. Uptown has become a destination, not just a place you stumble into.
Not just a destination to eat or to see the river, it's a destination to live.
It is indeed.
And CSU probably has more beds down here than anybody.
Yeah, I think that's true. And the feeling about a community like this that you get, if you stumbled into this city from somewhere else and didn't know where you were and somebody put you in downtown, you would see the buzz, the outdoor activity, you'd see the river vessels up and down the streets, you'd see the bicycles, you'd see the students with backpacks, you'd see kids walking around with musical instruments or other tools of education on them, and you'd think this is not only a thriving place, it's a youthful, imaginative place.
And you'd see the restaurants and you wonder where to park, so it has an air of success about it. It would be hard to discover that you were in the middle of a small Southern town that for years thought it couldn't do any better.
You also have a place people wouldn't even go visit, $1 million condominiums.
Yes, you do, in mills that have been lost to abandonment for years now and are providing upscale housing. We've got a river we tried to hide with industrial complex and kudzu... And when people see the white water and the RiverWalk, and the restaurants and the activity and the riverside features, and the educational opportunities and the arts and culture -- "What in the world is going on here and how did it happen?"
People would say that to us when they would come to visit. Many visitors that came said, "How did CSU do this?" And I said, "It's very simple. All you've got to do is go back wherever you are and start 20 years ago building relationships. It's all about relationships." That's the simple answer.
Are you proud of your role in building those relationships?
I'm proud of the role that people in Columbus played in building joint relationships with us because, after all, we belonged -- still do -- to Columbus. We are this city's college. And what we do out there is under close inspection because this is their baby. So, they built relationships with us. ...
The state owns this college.
The state owns this college -- theoretically. Now, a lot of what we've done with the legislative delegation years ago was state funding to build some facilities on campus, and a lot of what we've done with state funding is to help with the RiverCenter.
But virtually everything we've done has been with Columbus dollars -- it's been with private money. The state does not have a single penny invested in the housing downtown and very little money invested in the buildings downtown.
You're old enough now, almost 75. What do you want your legacy to be?
I don't need a legacy. I want to see what we've begun continued, and I want to see it continued in the spirit in which it was developed. I want to see it as an act of love. I want to see it as a child which was given birth by this community, was nurtured in its infancy, was carried through adolescence, was endured during its teenage years, was prideful in its young adult life -- and now total up all of those investments this community made in that college and look at the dividends coming back from that investment.
Those are human and economic ...
Human and economic and social and educational and all the rest. But dividends paid on investments made with hope already are -- and they're going to be -- unbelievable as we move forward.
Bright future for everybody. And here's what I'm proudest of: If there's going to be a legacy thing, let's talk about what the college has meant for every man in Columbus.
But not every man was president.
But here's the legacy of the college: We know factually that in this city something around 60 percent of the people in Columbus who have baccalaureate degrees got those degrees from Columbus College or Columbus State University. Sixty percent of everybody in Columbus who has a baccalaureate degree got it from us, which means, in another way, every other college and university in the world combined does not have as many graduates in this town as do we.
You wouldn't know that on Saturday afternoons in the fall.
Football is a whole different world. Think about that and think about what that means. It means we have built a middle class all across economic lines, across racial lines, across every line that you can imagine. Columbus State University is the biggest success story you can imagine for removing those barriers and building a middle class for all of our people. That's the legacy. Everything else is fluff.