I once had the opportunity to personally dine with the president. Not the President of the United States — that would involve way too much security and media hype.
The president I got to have an informal lunch with was E. Gordon Gee, who this week announced his decision to retire as president of The Ohio State University.
It was my sophomore year in college, 1993 or 1994, and nearly all my friends had left the dorms while I chose to stay because my scholarship covered room and board. So typically, I found myself eating lunch alone that school year.
It was a day just like any other day in the cafeteria line, but when I got to the service area, I noticed they were serving E.G.G. sandwiches in honor of the university president’s birthday.
An egg-product sandwich didn’t sound too bad so I got one, poured some orange juice from the stainless steel machine and pulled up a lonely seat in the dining area.
But just as I was about to dine, President Gee, who made his way through the same serving line shortly behind me, asked if I minded if he joined me.
While I was relatively new at the school, I recognized him instantly as he was wearing his trademark gray suit and red bow tie with his owl-eye glasses.
I was a bit at a loss for words, but managed to find something to indicate I would be honored if he sat at the same table.
He asked me about my experiences at Ohio State and why I chose to attend the school.
He was actually quite fascinated to learn that while I didn’t really plan on going to Ohio State or even really staying in the state of Ohio for my college education, a policy he instituted is what drew me to the university.
It was one of his major priorities at the time of his initial hiring in 1990 that the university attract higher quality students to improve its academic reputation. To that end, the school began offering sweet scholarship packages to National Merit Scholars — a deal so sweet in fact, I sucked up my teenage angst against the state I grew up in and donned the scarlet and gray.
It’s now 20 years later and a university that was considered primarily a party school at the time I graduated high school has now earned a reputation as a quality institute of higher education, due in no small part to Gee’s efforts.
As we talked over lunch, other students entering the cafeteria joined us and the president chatted with the whole group and made jokes. I can’t recall if he said anything off-color that would match the verbal gaffes he has been criticized for in recent years.
It was just a fun, light-hearted lunch with the president on his birthday.
But that’s just the kind of guy he was. Very personable and very approachable. I can’t recall the number of times I saw him walking across the Oval or talking to students in the halls of University Hall, where his office was located. He always seemed to have time for students.
I never really had an opportunity to talk to him again while at the university. But just last summer, when President Gee, now in his second stint with OSU, visited the Bayliss farm in Rushsylvania along with Brutus the Buckeye as part of a farm tour, I did get a chance to talk with him once again.
As a news reporter covering the event, it was a bit more of a professional conversation, but he still had that same air about him — a warm, inviting and down-to-earth air.
Although many students primarily remember that colorful individual, I can say I fully understand the impact his presidency has had on the academic reputation of the university and the state’s efforts to keep its bright young students at home.
I dare to say that I likely would not be working in Bellefontaine and probably not even living in Ohio if I had attended Purdue, Penn State or Berkeley, which were my original top choices for college. I would also have probably been saddled with student debts for most of the past two decades, but that’s a different story.
Anyway, with all the negative talk surrounding President Gee’s retirement in the wake of another series of ill-worded comments about other universities, I will still remember the man I had that E.G.G. sandwich with that day and what his presence has meant not only for Ohio State, but also for the state of Ohio.