Creativity Takes Courage
At the time of its dedication, the River Campus was a $51 million project almost a decade in the making. Its birth was a vision for the arts—both at Southeast Missouri State University and for the region. It was a campus designed to bring art, music, dance and theatre in one space with studios to help the academic programs thrive. Theatre and performance space would allow students the experience of professional venues and bring in professional touring companies the community previously had to seek out in St. Louis or Memphis.
The dream began with a gift from B.W. Harrison, a long-time supporter of the University, who donated funds for the purchase of the property, a picturesque bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in south Cape Girardeau that Mark Twain once described in his book Life on the Mississippi. What ensued were challenges in the form of legal battles, declining state revenue opportunities and the economic downturn of 9/11. There were times Dr. Ken Dobbins felt the vision might be impossible, but support from generous donors, congressional delegations, the state, and the city saw it to fruition. The result is an exquisite piece of Southeast, and Cape Girardeau, with a personality and vibe all its own. Dobbins credits former Board of Regents President Donald Dickerson with the vision, but it was most assuredly Dobbins’ tenacity that saw it through to reality.
“The River Campus exists due to Ken Dobbins pushing, pushing, pushing,” says Earl Holland, one of those generous donors who stepped forward to assist and for whom the Earl and Margie Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts housed in the River Campus is named. “My most favorite memory of him is seeing him on the joyous evening of the dedication.”
“I believe he calls it his nine-year pregnancy,” says current Board of Regents President and former Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson. “I can’t imagine a more accurate description when trying to explain the challenges faced followed by the joy of seeing it happen.”
If Dobbins wavered in his determination at any time during the timeline of the River Campus, it certainly didn’t show. Knudtson says the controversial issue brought out strong feelings on both sides but none were more committed than Dobbins.
“Now, to see it in action, to see the students who are benefiting, to see how it benefits our community? It’s truly one of his greatest accomplishments,” Knudtson says.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the development of the River Campus and what it represents in terms of the commitment to the arts by the University and for the broader community is the greatest long-term contribution Dr. Dobbins has made,” says Walt Lilly, professor of biology.
Knudtson’s predecessor, former Mayor Al Spradling, III, agrees. “I think the highlight of my relationship with the University while I was mayor was the development of the River Campus. It made a tremendous improvement in
south Cape Girardeau. The project spurred a whole new life into the city.”
Dobbins believed in the economic boost that a visual and performing arts center could bring the city, but he also knew it was the right path to take for students.
“It may be the most significant benefit curriculum-wise for the University for a long time. It will do nothing but grow,” says Holland.
“We currently have more than 500 majors in the arts,” says Rhonda Weller-Stilson associate dean of the college of liberal arts and director of the River Campus, “and that exciting growth is thanks to our facilities. It’s just at a different level now. Our students are having experiences they would have never had before until they were in the professional world, so it’s so beneficial they have them now.”
In addition to his commitment to the facilities, including an addition just opened in fall 2014 which brought much needed practice space, Weller-Stilson says Dobbins has been very supportive of the need for faculty. “In 2001, we had five faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance; now we have 13. Students are having a more diverse experience with faculty because in addition to a solid background, they get more specific types of training in each area.
“I’ve most enjoyed watching his interaction with students,” says Weller-Stilson. “You can see how much he cares about Southeast. It’s honest. When I see him in the atrium talking to students after a performance, he truly wants to know what their experience was like. He truly cares. That’s what makes him a great leader.”
Get a preview of the upcoming River Campus season at rivercampusevents.com.
June 18, 2015
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