Monday, June 7, 2010

Lefton's legacy? Lefton's folly

When I worked at KSU, I learned that the big open square between the library and the student center has a name: Risman Plaza. Well, okay. I imagine someone donated a lot of money to the university for that honor. Not enough money for a whole building, maybe, but probably more money than I will ever have, anyway.

My freshman year of college, the student center – and the plaza outside it – were under construction. I believe it was the spring of 1973 before everything was completed. I know that was when the awkward, angular fountain was filled with water for the first time. The multi-tiered fountain seemed the antithesis of smooth, flowing water to me, with its straight lines and rough, pebbly concrete texture. Maybe that was the point. It was an instant hit with the students, at any rate, and they swarmed all over it, some climbing clear to the top, others content to splash in the pool or sit underneath one of the waterfalls.

My roommate, Sarah, and I wandered down there one beautiful spring afternoon, wearing short cut-offs and halter tops, I imagine. (Because that was what we wore on beautiful spring afternoons.) Sarah was more athletic than I, and liked to think of herself as athletic, which is slightly different. She kicked off her sandals and began to climb the fountain. Not to be outdone, I followed her. The first level was easy, and I loved the idea of being part of the fountain, with water cascading down from above me, and flowing underneath my feet to fall below me. Sarah climbed to the next level, and with some difficulty, so did I. At that point, I became concerned about how I would get down again without totally making a fool of myself, so the moment had passed for me.

When Tom and Julie were little, we would take a car trip to Kent every year or so, and a highlight of the trip for them was to walk on the broad edge of the fountain, or if they were feeling brave, to step to one of the large, square blocks surrounded by water. As so many before them had, they shrieked with delight when the shifting wind sent a fine mist of water their way.

I always thought the fountain was unattractive, to be perfectly honest, and it sprayed water all across the plaza whenever the wind blew through the wind tunnel the buildings had created there – which was basically all the time. Over the years, I know the university architects tried various means to tame the winds that swirled through the plaza, and it was re-constructed at least once. I believe that was after a winter so harsh that ropes were strung across the large open square for students to hold onto as they crossed the icy expanse. For all that, though, the fountain and the square still looked pretty much as they always had. On warm, sunny days, the steps ringing the plaza were full of students sitting and eating and chatting and just watching the world go by.

All that is gone now. Ben and I decided to take a walk on campus yesterday evening, and our meandering path led us to Risman Plaza. Or as close as we could get to it, anyway, with a 10-foot tall chain link fence surrounding it. Everything inside that perimeter is gone. The graceful curve of steps, the years of plantings, the angular fountain that I had grown to love – all gone. University president Lester Lefton didn’t like the way the plaza looked, you see. So now it must all be changed. I understand that change is good, indeed, vital, to the life of the university. It is change for the sake of change that concerns me. And the fact that one man’s opinion is deemed more important than that of so many thousands of students, faculty, and staff troubles me, as well. But, thus it has always been, eh?