GVSU at 60: New retirees brought creative ideas, leadership, connections to campus
On one of her last days as a Grand Valley employee, LeaAnn Tibbe, associate director of student life, hosted a party for 2,200 graduates and 8,000 of their friends and family members.
Tibbe, who started working at Grand Valley in 1995, is among the faculty and staff members who will retire before the end of the academic year. Like Tibbe, many have significant years of service that span a good portion of the university's 60 years.
The May 1 Laker Graduation Celebration started as a seed in Tibbe's mind to give graduates the experience they wanted and couldn't have due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"After we had to cancel commencement in April and December 2020, our office heard from so many students that they really missed getting photos with the president in their cap and gown," Tibbe said.
Another large-scale event that started "in her head" was a class photo of first-year students following Transitions orientation in August.
"Then we had to figure out how to get 4,000 students to the football field and have them make the shape of a GVSU," Tibbe said. "Last year, I asked that they turn off the stadium lights and the students held up their phones. I said, at that time, 'It looks good in my head.' I'm glad it turned out well."
The class photo has been a tradition since 2014.
Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on large- and even small-scale events for students. Tibbe said she is proud of how Student Life staff members have shown creativity when planning socially distanced events, noting that the Haunted Arboretum and Winter Fest were well received.
Tibbe will most miss engaging with students and said she has enjoyed every day of her nearly 30-year career.
"So many of my friends have counted down to their retirement. I was counting the days I still got to go to work," she said.
Tim Thimmesch, associate vice president for Facilities Services, led a staff of 160 essential workers who reported to campus daily last spring during the COVID-19 lockdown, while most faculty and staff members worked remotely.
Thimmesch retired in late April after 26 years of service. He recorded a short video, "60 For 60," and recalled a memory. See Thimmesch's video and others in the series that highlight the untold stories of Grand Valley's history.
"Our staff has worked through so many different protocols, from custodial cleaning to maintenance work in housing units where a student might be isolated because of COVID-19," he said. "They really stepped up over this past year and I appreciate it."
Thimmesch had worked as director of facilities at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. When arriving at Grand Valley in 1995, student enrollment was 12,500 and the university's physical presence was 1.8 million square feet. Those numbers are now 23,350 students and 6 million square feet.
The department's workforce has also increased from 77 people in 1995 to nearly 160 now.
"We also have transitioned from being, primarily, a reactionary department to one that predicts when maintenance is needed and that's because of the talented crew we have and the quality of staff," Thimmesch said.
From ordering personal protective equipment to sanitizing touch points around campus to repopulating buildings, Thimmesch said he and other department leaders learned and shared best health and safety practices with colleagues at other state universities.
"We have talked to our counterparts at other institutions and went on a few visits to learn what others are doing. That has been very helpful in terms of cleaning and sanitation, and we have been able to keep up the grounds even without all of our student employees," he said.
Before the pandemic, Facilities Services regularly hosted staff picnics and barbecues. This COVID-19 casualty has been greatly missed, Thimmesch said.
"We keep saying, 'It can't be much longer and we can have a picnic again,'" he said. "We need everyone to get their vaccinations."
Craig Benjamin, professor of history in the Meijer Honors College, recalled the time when a small Grand Valley lapel pin saved him from an embarrassing situation.
In 2012, Benjamin was invited to give the keynote address at a Medieval Cities conference in Turkmenistan. Part of his itinerary included attending a reception with a local leader.
"We were all greeting her and suddenly these other people started presenting her with gifts," Benjamin said. "She was getting gifts from Russia, the Ukraine and then it was my turn. I had nothing.
"With great flourish, I took off my GVSU 50th anniversary lapel pin and presented it to her, saying it comes with my university's great respect. She really liked it."
Benjamin arrived at Grand Valley in 2003 from Australia, where he was a part-time teaching assistant at Macquarie University while completing his doctoral degree. At Macquarie, Benjamin worked closely with the co-founder of the Big History movement, an interdisciplinary approach to history that searches for universal trends and patterns. He has held leadership positions in the International Big History Association and for several years the association was housed at Grand Valley.
He began teaching in the Meijer Honors College in 2012 and said he will most miss conversations with honors students.
"They come to class and already have a great knowledge of history, so it makes for great discussions. I like to get them outside of the classroom: we go on excursions throughout West Michigan and down into the Ravines," he said.
It was the pandemic that led Benjamin to consider retirement. He said it got increasingly difficult for him and his wife to be so far away from family in Australia, which now includes a new grandchild.
"Grand Valley has allowed me to flourish and offered a place to find myself as a scholar. This university will always have a special place in my heart," he said.