Missing Charlie

When an organization gets to a certain size, information, coordination and control become increasingly difficult. Economists call this diseconomies of scale. We have such a way with words.

Over the years of growth at St. Thomas, I’ve seen more and more evidence of this kind of difficulty. Right now it’s evident in our attempts to grapple with cost and tuition control. Information and understanding are necessary to cut less crucial expenses while maintaining quality and core values. That’s difficult in a large, somewhat decentralized endeavor.

It’s all enough to make me miss Charlie Keffer. For those of you too young at UST to remember, Charlie Keffer was physicist, provost, space czar, major domo, chief communicator, neighborhood liaison and last resort in a pinch. His knowledge of the university, from big picture to small detail, was amazing. It seemed as though Charlie knew when every light bulb needed changing and was there to do it if no one else was available. If you really needed brighter wattage, ask Charlie.

As a faculty member, I sometimes had breakfast, lunch and dinner with Charlie. Breakfast was once a month with the Merriam Park Community Council, lunch was often a Charlie brownbag issue discussion and dinner might be a big Faculty Development do. For a faculty member, that might be a lot of service involvement; for Charlie, it was everyday life. Charlie was everywhere.

Whenever Charlie showed up unexpectedly, people would start to worry about losing their space to some other use; everyone feared the space czar had his eye on their office, workroom or conference room for reallocation. We would all hurry about to make our spaces look well used and fully occupied. We didn’t go so far as to bring in ringers to sit at empty desks, at least not until Charlie showed up with his tape measure. No closet was too small for conversion to a conference room if necessary. One bathroom on third floor OEC became a journalism office over spring break. Now occupied by Juli Kroll in Spanish, it originally belonged to Mark Neuzil. The size of a largish desk, the office boasted a wall so thin the toilet could be heard flushing in the men’s room next door. Mark says he always thought of it as living by a waterfall.

Well, Charlie didn’t give up. When presented with a problem, he found a solution, even if it cost a bathroom. A physicist to the core, he accepted the immutable, but anything else he would engineer to best purpose.

Charlie officially retired in 1998, but you’ll be glad to know that he is still here for us – glad unless he comes your way with a tape measure, of course. Nowadays he spots Caribbean island students for dedicated scholarships and he does special assignments. For the past year or so he spearheaded the Opus Prize project, culminating in the splashiest awards ceremony I’ve ever attended.

My favorite memory of Charlie was not reality at all. I dreamt that I was working in the yard digging weeds. One weed had a particularly tenacious root. I pulled, I set my feet, I pulled more. Finally, the root turned loose. I fell backwards. Looking up, I saw the weed’s face. It was a grinning Creeping Charlie.

I told you he was everywhere – tenacious to the root.