Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Stroll Through the Magical Forest

I still remember the first time I saw those towering pines standing guard just outside Massey Hall. It was a cold day in January and it was my first time ever on the RMU campus. A thin layer of snow blanket the ground and built small drifts on the sidewalk as the winter wind whipped through the trees. And that sound—you know, the whooshing sound the wind makes as it pushes through a pine tree—it made me feel like I was a thousand miles away out in the wilderness, rather than just 15 minutes from Pittsburgh.

There was a lamppost there, too, within the trees, and it got me to thinking. At that moment, if a half-human, half-goat would have emerged from behind the trees, I could’ve been in Narnia rather than Moon Township. Then again, if a half-human, half-goat had emerged from behind the trees, I would’ve screamed and ran away and never come back to RMU again. Luckily that didn’t happen.

If you’ve ever been to Robert Morris University, you probably know what trees I’m talking about. Covering an area that stretches from Massey Hall almost all the way over to Nicholson Center, these majestic giants create a miniature forest, if you will, and make up one of the more unique and peaceful spots on campus. And there’s even a cement pathway running right through the middle of them, providing a delightful trek in an enchanted setting. I’ve even heard people refer to these trees as the “Magical Forest,” and it’s easy to see why.

Being a writer, I’m not really a numbers guy. Heck, I need my wife’s help just to figure out how much to tip when we go out for dinner. But ever since I first saw these huge pine trees, I was curious to know just how many there were. So, one day I went out and counted them, not once but three times. And of course, I came up with three different numbers. But let’s just say there’s around 200 of these trees out there (at least, there were before three of them blew down in a windstorm last fall).

I was also curious to find out just what type of trees these were and approximately how old they might be. So I consulted RMU’s Department of Science and its resident tree expert William J. Dress, Ph.D. Dress, the department head and assistant professor of science, told me there’s a few different types of pines in this grouping. “There are several white pine and hemlock,” he says, “but there are probably at least one or two more types as well.” As for the age of the trees, he couldn’t be sure without cutting one down and counting the rings, which would be somewhat contrary to the point of my inquiry. But he estimates that most of them are at least 50 years old.

If you’ve never gotten a chance to walk through RMU’s “Magical Forest,” I urge you to do so. Just be on the lookout for any half-human, half-goat creatures. I’m still not convinced.

- Valentine J. Brkich

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Joe Walton Celebrity Golf Classic

I’ve been golfing for 22 years now. You’d think that after so much practice I’d be on the PGA Tour, duking it out with the likes of Tiger, Phil, and Sergio (Garcia, not Mendes). You’d be wrong. What's strange is that I was actually a better golfer in my early teens than I am now (somewhere beyond my late teens).

So when my boss asked if I’d like to play in the Joe Walton Celebrity Golf Classic, I hesitated at first. After all, I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But then I found out that the tournament was on a Monday, i.e., a workday. So I figured I could handle a little embarrassment, as long as it meant I could get out of the office for a while.

The Joe Walton Celebrity Golf Classic is an annual charity event that benefits RMU Colonial Football. Its host, Joe Walton, has been the team’s head coach for 16 years. He actually started the football program back in July 1993. Since then, Coach Walton has led the Colonials to five Northeast Conference titles and a pair of mid-major national crowns. In 2004, RMU honored him by naming the university’s new football stadium after him.

In the past, this scramble-style golf tournament has drawn such famed sports legends as Joe Namath, Franco Harris, Joe Theismann, Yogi Berra, Chuck Noll, Jack Ham, and Lynn Swann. This year it was held at the Beaver Valley Golf Club in Beaver Falls, Pa. (Coach Walton’s hometown), and the list of sports icons was equally impressive, with names like John Banaszak, Steve Blass, Dave Robinson, Andy Russell, Foge Fazio, Hank Fraley, Hugh Green, and Babe Parilli.

Each foursome is paired up with a different celebrity, and we were honored to golf with Tito Francona, former MLB star and father of Terry Francona, manager of the Boston Red Sox. Although he played for many teams, Francona played the majority of his career (1959-1964) as a Cleveland Indian.

If you’ve ever played in a golf tournament, you’ll understand why I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I duffed my first drive about 20 yards off to the left and into the high rough. I've duffed many a first drive in my 22 years as a duffer, and there were many more duffs to follow throughout the afternoon. Fortunately, we had Mr. Francona batting clean-up, and he saved us time and time again with his down-the-center drives and dead-on putting. He also treated us to some incredible stories of his time in the major leagues—stories about legends like Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, and Ted Williams. I was captivated.

That was two days ago and I’m still pretty sore. Yesterday it hurt just to sit at my desk and type. Maybe golf’s just not the game for me. Luckily it only took me 22 years to figure that out.

- Valentine J. Brkich

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The whole story

The Chronicle of Higher Education's news blog had an item yesterday about the decision of our Faculty Federation to give up some of the raise that was due them next year in order to provide more aid for students. The Chronicle makes a reference to last year's tuition increase that calls out for more context.

The fact is that RMU has the third-lowest tuition of any private university is Pennsylvania, and is the most affordable private university in Allegheny County. This year's tuition increase of 3.95 percent is the lowest since 1997, and it will go entirely to programs and improvements that directly benefit students. The bottom line is that we endeavor to keep RMU as affordable as possible, and the actions of our faculty speak to that.

- Jonathan Potts

Monday, May 18, 2009

We bring you the world

Students and faculty in RMU's School of Nursing and Health Sciences leave this week for a trip to China, and you can follow them at their own blog, Upon their return we also hope to have some video to share, which we'll post at our YouTube channel, here. And our tech savvy nurses have their own YouTube channel, here.

- Jonathan Potts

Friday, May 15, 2009

Invasion of The Strange Blue Metal Thingy

You’d think summertime on a university campus would be a quiet, peaceful time. After all, what is a university, really, but a community of students. With commencement last weekend, the last of the remaining students on campus packed up their futons, PlayStations, and shower shoes and rode off into the sunset, so to speak.

For a couple days, things really were quiet around here. The parking lots were empty, the Food Court was closed, and it seemed like I had the entire 230-acre campus to myself.

But here at RMU, there’s always something going on, no matter what time of year it is.

When I came to work on Tuesday, the previously bare parking lots were now packed with vehicles, the majority of them pick-up trucks. There was also some sort of contraption – I call it The Strange Blue Metal Thingy – planted in the parking lot just across the street from the Sewall Center. At lunchtime I went for a walk to do a little investigating and found out that the reason for all these cars (and The Strange Blue Metal Thingy) was the Eastern Gas Compression Roundtable (EGCR). The EGCR, according to its website, “is a non-profit organization whose primary purpose is to provide the Natural Gas Industry with cost effective training programs,” and it was holding its annual conference right here in RMU’s Sewall Center.

Inside the 36,000-square-foot arena, 140 or so exhibitors had set up booths and were sharing information on their services, training programs, and all the latest innovations in the industry. I thought about asking someone about The Strange Blue Metal Thingy, but I didn’t want to reveal my ignorance about the natural gas industry in front of so many experts. So I just let it be.

Apparently, the EGCR conference is just one of the thousands – yes, thousands – of events that RMU hosts each year. Andrea L Plummer, RMU’s senior manager of Conference and Facility Services, said the EGCR conference is just one of over 2,000 events held in the Sewall Center this fiscal year alone. “We have back to back major events until middle of June,” she says, “and then we have to get ready for summer camps. People don’t realize how busy we are around here. The summer, in particular, is very active.”

In the next month alone, RMU will be hosting a baseball card show (May 15–18), the Y108 Country Cares for Cops benefit concert (May 18), a coin show (May 22–24), Basketball Stars of America (May 29–31), Montour High School’s graduation (June 3), Quaker Valley High School’s graduation (June 4), the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam (June 6), and Moon High School’s graduation (June 12). Whew!

The reason so many events come to RMU is because of its scenic grounds and spacious facilities. The Sewall Center, itself, is the second largest exhibit space in Pittsburgh. I’ll let you guess which facility is number one.

I never did find out what The Strange Blue Metal Thingy was. But that's okay. Sometimes mysteries are more romantic, especially when it comes to natural gas.

- Valentine J. Brkich

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Great RMU

The other day I stepped out of the office for a little fresh air, when I saw a wild turkey. It came around the side of the building and scampered along the sidewalk for a bit before cutting across the grass and disappearing into the woods. Being that it was just about lunchtime, visions of stuffing and cranberry sauce danced in my head.

Although it was a little strange to see a turkey running around in the middle of the day, seeing a wild animal here on RMU’s Moon Township campus was no big surprise. After all, there’s 230 rolling acres up here, and much of it is surrounded by forest.

I’ve had a few offices in my day, each one of them with a different view. At one of my first jobs, my office was in the boiler room, where, besides breathing in metal dust and enjoying a constant 90 degree temperature, I had a wonderful view of…well, the boiler. At other jobs, the only view I had was the wall of my cubicle. I actually used to draw a fake window on my computer, print it out, and then hang it on the wall to try and trick myself. Sad but true.

My current office here at RMU offers, by far, the best view I’ve ever had. My window in Lafayette Center (a real window, by the way) looks out into the woods and gives me the feeling that I’m a hundred miles from civilization. It’s like I’m writing from the comfort of a secluded cabin (an air-conditioned cabin with genuine pine smell provided by a plug-in air freshener). Last fall as I was sitting here working when a group of 10 or 12 deer came bounding from the direction of campus and went right past my window before vanishing deep into the woods. Now that’s something you don’t see in your average corporate office.

I’ve seen all kinds of animals up here, from deer and turkey, to hawks and foxes, to groundhogs and “grinnies” (Pittsburghese for chipmunks). Heck, it’s like we’ve got our very own wildlife preserve, just without any of those pesky man-eating predators, which can really put a damper on your outdoor experience.

I find a lot of people are surprised when they first visit RMU and see what a scenic, expansive campus we have. What’s great about it is that in just 15 or 20 minutes you can be right in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, if you're in the mood for a more urban atmosphere. Then again, if you’re looking to find a secluded place to throw down a blanket, do some reading, or maybe even take a quick snooze, there’s plenty of room here to spread out and relax. Our students really have the best of both worlds.

As for me, now that I'm working at RMU, I no longer have to stare out fake windows or endure sweltering temperatures while I’m working…which is nice.

— Valentine J. Brkich

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Perils of Antiquing

I may be the first – and youngest – person to ever sustain a knee injury at an antique store.

Okay, I admit it—I like antique stores. I’m not into porcelain tea sets or costume jewelry or paintings of dogs playing poker or anything like that; I just enjoy perusing the aisles and seeing what type of interesting junk…um, I mean treasures people have to sell. Occasionally I’ll buy an old book or a vintage typewriter, but for the most part I’m just a browser.

And that’s exactly what I was doing a few weeks ago down at a local antique dealer in nearby Coraopolis. I was coming back from a meeting at the RMU Island Sports Center, when I spotted the store and decided to do a little treasure hunting. That’s when I came across an old painting entitled “The Formation of the First National Bank of the United States.” I was immediately intrigued.

In case you didn’t know, our very own namesake, Robert Morris, “Financier of the American Revolution,” helped organize the Bank of North America – the first modern U.S. bank – in 1781, while he was serving as superintendent of finance. This bank was the predecessor of the First Bank of the United States, which got its charter from Congress in 1791. Was Robert Morris involved in the establishment of this “First Bank” too? I didn’t know, and it was impossible to tell from the painting, which shows several men all wearing traditional colonial garb and powdered wigs. The only recognizable face was that of George Washington. So, unsure if Morris was in the picture, I decided not to buy it.

After a couple weeks, however, I decided to just go and purchase the painting since it wasn’t expensive, and there was a good chance that Morris was one of the subjects depicted. But when I arrived at the store I became distracted by some dusty old books and started to peruse the titles.

That’s when it happened. As I squatted down to look at a book, I felt a sharp pain in my knee. And when I came back up, the pain was even more intense. So, after paying for the painting, I hobbled out of the store, hoping that I hadn’t just blown out my ACL while antiquing.

As it turns out, I just pulled my quad muscle, which is not as serious an injury, but still quite an embarrassing one to sustain at an antique store. Fine, I admit it: I’m old.

As for the painting, I’m still not sure yet if Robert Morris is one of the white-wig-wearing gentlemen shown discussing our nation’s first bank. Regardless, I gave it to Fran Caplan, RMU’s dean of university libraries, as a donation to the Heritage Room, of which she is the curator. It should make a nice addition to the room, which honors our esteemed namesake.

In the meantime, I’ll keep digging around on the Internet to see if I can find an answer to this mystery. Hopefully I won’t pull anything while operating my computer mouse.

--Valentine J. Brkich

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Bard Wannabe

I’m what you call an amateur poet. By that I mean that, from time to time, when the mood strikes, I pen a really terrible “poem” that nobody will or should ever read. In fact, I’m hoping one day to have an entire collection of unread poetry that I can never share with anyone. Then, when I die, someone will find it, attempt to read it, see that it’s really bad, and then make sure that it’s disposed of properly. Preferably with fire. Call me a dreamer, but it could happen.

Yesterday, thanks to Robert Morris University, I got to attend a wonderful poetry event at the Schenley Park Visitors Center in Oakland. Hosted by Autumn House Press, the event was a celebration of poetry and a release party for Autumn House’s When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women by Andrea Hollander Budy.

The event also featured favorite poem readings by Toi Derricotte, professor of English at the University of Pitt; Marty McGuinn, chairman and CEO of Mellon Financial Corporation; Rick Sebak, producer for WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh; Sally Wiggin, WTAE Channel 4 Action News anchor; and some other guy named Franco Harris, who they tell me played football to some acclaim back in the 1970s.

My wife accompanied me to the reading, making us the only two people out of the hundred or so in attendance unable to recite any poem from memory other than “Roses Are Red…”

One of the more distinguished attendees was RMU’s very own Jay S. Carson, D.A., university professor of English Studies for the Department of English Studies & Communications Skills, and a pretty darn good poet in his own right. His poem, “Jay Bird,” was printed in the April 2005 edition of Paper Street Press in Pittsburgh, and “How I Would Become a Blacksmith” was in the latest edition of Hawaii Review.

It may surprise you, but RMU has a lot of talented poets right here on campus, and you can read many of their works in the university’s very own student literary magazine, Rune, which just released it's latest issue. If you’re a poet and, unlike me, you’re willing to share your work, Rune accepts poetry, short stories, dramatic writing, and other writings along with photography and art as well. You can e-mail Jay S. Carson for more information.

I have to admit, I felt a little inspired after this event, and it gave me the confidence to share my latest poem. Let me know what you think:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
For a great degree
Come to RMU it’s a work in progress.

--Valentine Brkich

Monday, May 4, 2009

Laverne and Shirley land

This interesting essay in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) caught my eye because of the book recently published by RMU history prof John McCarthy. You can read about it here.