Dave Kratzer—A lifetime of service, a legacy of lives touched

Kratzer_Headshot_189_237As the doors open to the J. Wayne Reitz Union this week, you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief and sense an undercurrent of excitement rippling through campus.  For Dave Kratzer, UF vice president for student affairs, it’s the culmination of a dream that began 30 years ago as he sat in a hotel room after interviewing for the position of the director of UF’s student union, sketching how the building might one day look.

On June 30, Kratzer, a beloved administrator and distinguished military veteran, will retire from the University of Florida.  Having served for 19 years as director of the Reitz Union starting in 1986, he was later made associate vice president before being named interim vice president, then vice president for student affairs in 2012. In between his roles as director of the union and as associate vice president, just months after 9/11, he was called away to military duty, deployed first to Afghanistan and then to Kuwait and Iraq before retiring from the United States Army in 2006 with the rank of Major General.

We had the good fortune to sit down with Vice President Kratzer just days before the Reitz Union reopened its doors on Feb. 1 to learn more about his remarkable career.

What led you to work in student affairs and to the University of Florida?

I was very passionate about student union work.  When I graduated from college, I thought my near-future was determined.  I had orders to go to Fort Rucker helicopter school; I had already received my fixed wings as an aviator in the army.  I was supposed to go to helicopter school with following orders to go to Vietnam. It was one of those times in history where things were a little confusing and I got a letter saying there was no room for Americans in American flight schools.  They were trying to turn everything over to the Vietnamese. I ended up being in a position in the Army I hadn’t ever intended, as a signal officer in Georgia.  So as soon as I could, I agreed with the Army to be extracted out of there; they put me in the Army Reserves and I was free to go look for a job.  That was 1972.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go to Western Illinois University and to be hired there in a great student union and student activities organization. I was promoted to director of student activities at a very early age.  I was still in my mid-20s.  From there, I went to the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana, to be a student union director when I was 27.

I guess that’s where I began thinking about this as a long-term career.  I really enjoyed the idea of working with students and bringing about activities on campus for people to do things. The word “union” is powerful—bringing people together in a space and through programmatic opportunities.  That really attracted me.

I got a phone call that I was to go interview at a little school I had never heard of—Murray State University in western Kentucky. I actually had to look it up on the map and found out it was only 90 miles away, but I didn’t know about the school.  The reason I went there is they were getting ready to build a new student union, and it turned out to be fantastic.  I stayed there for seven years, from 1979 to 1986.  We built what is now the Curris Center. It won some awards, was on the front cover of “College Union” magazine and had some notoriety.  And in the meantime, they asked me to be the interim vice president there.  But the truth is I didn’t want to be the interim vice president.  I wanted to be the student union director.  That was my passion and I realized that, all things being possible, I wanted to go to a bigger school and do that.

So the opportunity came along here at Florida, and I was very lucky to be hired by a person I consider to be my mentor, Dr. Art Sandeen.  He was vice president of Student Affairs in 1986, and I came to be the director of the Reitz Union.  I have loved working at the University of Florida ever since. My close relationship with students really is the key with me.  I’ve been here for over 30 years now, and that bond with former students and former student leaders has never been broken.  I feel like I have a great connection to The Gator Nation due to this long-term affiliation.

What have you enjoyed most about working with students?

What’s so exciting is that it almost reinvents itself each year.  You have a new student body president and you have new officers.  They have different ideas and they only have a year to accomplish whatever their agenda is.  It was always a special time trying to see if we could work with the students to try to help them achieve their goals within the goals of the university.

One group that I was always very close to was the Reitz Union Board of Managers at the University of Florida.  In our history, going back to 1936, there was always a board that advises the director of the union on policies and everything from budget to operational hours.  We would take everything to that board to discuss because the union is really there for the campus and specifically for the students.  It’s funded by student activity fees, so their money is very much invested in that building and what we offer needed to reflect them.

The people who have been involved in the Reitz Union Board of Managers over the years include UF Trustee Raul Patel, who just ended his term as president of the Alumni Association, and Michael Brown, who is the incoming president of the UF Alumni Association, who was student body president.  We have stayed in touch with hundreds, if not thousands, of former UF students. Many of them say that the opportunities that they have had in leadership roles were as powerful as what they learned in the classroom; leading to careers later in life.  A lot of the treasurers became involved in financial operations, like Michael who became a very high-ranking official in the Kellogg Corporation in Michigan.  Raul Patel is a senior partner with King and Spalding—the largest law firm in the south.

It’s really gratifying to see these students come along and then stay in contact.  That’s one thing I will take with me [when I retire].  I will not unplug from the university.  We will stay involved with UF and certainly stay involved with all of the lifetime friends that we have made.

How did the Reitz Union change during your time as director?

While I was director of the Reitz Union, we brought the first nationally branded food vendors into the food court—Wendy’s and Subway.  It changed the way food is delivered in the union and ultimately on campus.  We built the Grand Ballroom, the Career Resource Center.  At the same time, we worked very closely with Business Services which added the parking garage and moved the university bookstore from the center of campus into the union.

My staff used to tease me and say I was a frustrated architect because there was always a crane outside.  The day I interviewed here back in 1986, I called my wife at the end of the day and she said, “How is it going?”  I was staying in the hotel in the union and I was already starting to sketch what I thought the union was going to look like.

How did this most recent renovation and addition come about?

What you see today, and what we opened on Monday—this fantastic reinvention of the building—began the first day [former] President Bernie Machen asked me to be the interim vice president in 2011.  He gave me a list of things he wanted me to accomplish in that very first meeting—and the first thing he said was, “I want you to build the new student union.”

So I accepted that challenge and as a team, my staff began to think about: How do you find the money for the project?  The economy had a downturn in 2008, we were in the midst of budget cuts and I even questioned the President and said, “Are you sure you really want me to do this because we don’t have a lot of money to be able to do a lot of things?  But he said, “I want to do this for the students.” Of course, that was music to my ears. So as much as the construction is a good story and the concept and the reason for why the space is there, I think how to fund that building was as intricate as the construction.

Cydney McGlothlin, our project manager, said that may be the most complex building ever built at the University of Florida, because there’s so many different functions and features and different offices that have to plug into the structure. You also have food service concepts and the bookstore, and we wanted to make sure it could all interrelate.  We wanted to make sure there wasn’t a demarcation between the old building and the new building, so when you’re inside it all looks new.  We renovated almost 100,000 square feet of the existing building and added 120,000 square feet of new building.

In order to do that, I went back to see President Machen and told him I thought I had the idea of how to begin finding the money to build the building.  I said we are going to have to commit the next release from the Capitol Improvement Trust Fund to go toward the construction of the facility.  That student fee allocation yielded about 20 million dollars.

Next we had to share the vision with the students.  The students who have lived through the construction of the Reitz Union for the last three years are getting ready to graduate.  And they did it without complaint.  We actually took a portion of the student activity and service fee and used it for revenue for bond funding—and bond funding rates were really advantageous at that time because the  building industry was almost at a standstill and you could get a lot of value for the money.  Interest rates were low, construction companies were looking for work and were willing to bid at really competitive prices. The $2.55 per student credit hour carved out the student activity fees created the income stream to repay  $50 million in bond funding of over 20 years

All in all, we didn’t raise the fee, and we didn’t create a special fee, which some of the other schools have had to do for construction projects.  If you’re a member of a community board or a county board at some point—if you do a referendum and you begin with the words “Do you want to pay more money for ‘fill in the blank,’” it will always fail.  If it begins with the idea—with the vision—and you can do it without taxing people, then it’s kind of magical.  Then it’s all about what is the possibility and the potential for the future.

We also had the right design team in place.  They were very good at listening to our students and literally set up tables outside in the campus walkways for students to provide input on idea boards.  Twenty thousand people a day walk by—it’s the highest traffic area on campus. So really this building was designed by our students with that design team and some of the professionals that are here.

What were some of the themes you discovered through that process?

One thing was surprising.  One of our architects came back and said, “You are the ‘dancing’est campus we’ve seen.”  All through the year, there will be kids rehearsing dance routines. All year long—whatever their week- or month-long celebration may be, it is probably going to involve dancing.  We were going to propose a dance studio with a floating dance floor so people could work on their dance routines, but they said we needed two. So we have two dance studios with floating, spring floors, each with a mirrored wall.

The Center for Leadership and Service is right in the middle of building, on the second floor.  And, we have over 1100 student organizations that are registered on campus.  The one thing they have in common is that almost all of them have a component of community service, giving back, or they are about leadership. It’s really not about the brick and mortar.  It’s really about leadership, service, engagement and discovery.”

When you leave here as a Gator, you should know about more about leadership.  And through service, you should learn to give back to your community, state, or nation in all that you do. Students do that through engagement in organizations. The discovery piece is to discover who you are through shared experiences.

We also have our first ever Multicultural and Diversity Affairs Center.  I think it represents the future and the demographics of Florida.  We will be a more diverse nation and state. Our community and campus should reflect that reality.

You mentioned renovation as well.  How about the ballrooms and the meeting rooms?

When making reservations for large events people usually wanted the “new” Grand Ballroom and would settle for the Rion Ballroom if needed.  The ceilings were too low and the room had interior columns.  So we asked when the building was to be renovated that the Rion ballroom be at least as attractive and capable the existing Grand Ballroom.

We thought that meant raise the roof to create a high ceiling. Also, it could not have interior columns and better lighting.  That created a real problem.  The architects really struggled because it turned out there wasn’t enough structural support to take away the internal columns.  And what they were going to have to do to do to correct the situation was going to be really expensive.

So sometimes great ideas happen when one person thinks in a non-linear fashion. Well, that happened. One of our architects said, “What if we don’t raise the ceiling?  What if we lower it?”

The idea was to lower the ceiling of the original Rion Ballroom and make that space into a meeting room complex. That allowed the new Rion Ballroom to be built on top of the meeting room complex.it.  All of those columns became the structural support for the Rion Ballroom above it.  It was brilliant!  And now, the Rion is beautiful and functional.

In addition to the Reitz renovation, what other work has happened during your tenure as vice president that reflects UF’s acceleration toward becoming a top public university?

I am proud of many things accomplished by our talented staff.  I think what we’ve done with the Career Resource Center to intentionally link our students with job opportunities and give them the skills to be competitive is commendable.

We also completed two residence halls this fall—Infinity Hall and Cypress Hall.  And they aren’t just buildings.  Infinity Hall is a living-learning center for entrepreneurs.  It has gained a lot of attention internationally. The design—the aspect of having ground floor maker space and 3D printing, as well as start-up companies that students can interact with to say, “How did you take your invention—your idea—and create a company?  Infinity Hall is located right across the street from Innovation Square.

What’s interesting about Cypress Hall is that in addition to providing badly needed additional student housing, we created 35 rooms that can be used for students who have multiple physical challenges. These are students that we could not accommodate in the past. The building is also right next to the UF Disability Resource Center. We have staff from the Disability Resource Center that are now housed in Cypress to help those students on a daily basis.

Both of those buildings opened at 100 percent capacity. As a matter of fact, for 30 years the University of Florida has been at 100 percent occupancy in our residence halls. We don’t require anyone to live on campus.

As you look ahead to retirement, what are you looking forward to?

There’s just a lot to do.  I need to work on my golf game [he smiles].  I have two terrific grandsons who are both 10 years old: one’s in Atlanta and one’s in Dallas.  So I need a little time with Jack and Cooper.  About a thousand things, actually.  We want to travel a little bit.  Judy and I want to take classes together and become a little more proficient in our language skills.  I also intend to write and I am currently working with a military historian from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

Plus I want to stay connected with the University of Florida and help advance this great university in any way that I can.  I owe a lot to this university and there are 30 years of Gators out there with whom I want to stay connected.