Gunnison Sphinx

Ha! You — or maybe it was me — didn’t think I would remember, but I did. It wasn’t any writing that jarred my memory loose; it was reading the local newspaper and happening across the article on how Western Not State hopes to pay for Corona — an article that came out before the JBC announcement. So here you go: the topic I couldn’t recall 24 hours ago.

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A reputable photojournalist would have come back on a sunny day to capture the full effect of the glistening glass– or at least gotten out of the car in sacrifice of hot McDonald’s french fries.

Western, beloved Western (as the song used to go), has rarely met a donor it didn’t love. This by itself is perhaps not unusual; most institutes of higher learning most institutes of learning most institutes heck, most anyone is loath to turn down a gifted dollar. The best gifted dollars are those like the birthday dollars from Grandma Ruth that I used to purchase a basketball, no encumbrance of any sort: happy birthday; get yourself something you’d like.

That so rarely works at the higher education institutional level, however, and my family is part of that, as we encourage (or not — we never advertise) donations to the Charles H. Livermore Scholarship, given only to history students, and only to those who meet specific criteria.

I don’t know about Western, but I’m beginning to question the wisdom of accepting their latest and greatest gift. Okay, I’m not beginning; my questions started back when the donation was announced: 80 million big ones from a geology graduate, obviously grateful to his alma mater for setting him on his path to riches.

[Let me announce here that it is entirely probable that this student was in the Bartleson house next door to us multiple times in the 1970s, but I know nothing about him personally at all.]

But is it gratitude, I can’t help but wonder, especially when I head to McDonald’s to encounter a disappointingly limited menu but at least the iconic fries are intact, and take in the edifice arising out of the humble Gunnison dirt.

The sole surviving Wonder of the ancient world is the Great Pyramid of Giza, constructed 4,500 years ago as a monument not to the life but to the death of the Pharaoh Khufu. Perhaps because their life on Earth was so short, averaging about 40 years (let us all who are past that think about that, but only momentarily), those ancient Egyptians built all their houses, up to and including palaces, out of unlasting mud brick, but their temples and tombs were carved with soft copper chisels out of rock, mostly limestone but also granite.

Even today, then, we can see Khufu as he envisioned himself in death, sort of: back when he died the pyramid was really something to see, encased in white limestone topped by a pyramidion of gold, both of which must have lit up the landscape for miles. Of the pharaoh himself, however, all we have is a three-inch high likeness.

But then his son Khafre (Cough-rah) came along, and while his pyramid is just shy of the dazzler his dad’s was, his comes with THE Sphinx, the mysterious statue that has beguiled and bedeviled humanity lo these many centuries. I’m not as up on my Egyptology as I once was, but when I last checked in they (you know, “them”) had decided it is a representation of Khafre himself, in lion form. Take that, dad.

Because everything in Egypt happened (and probably still does) along the Nile River, if you pulled up to Giza in your watercraft, the first thing you would see would be not the pyramids, but the reclining lion in the likeness of Khafre. You know who’s in charge then, don’t you?

Now, a few centuries into the future, should you find yourself cruising west along the twisty banks of Tomichi Creek, eventually you will arrive at Gunnison. And more or less the first outcropping of buildings you will see [for now — Gunnison So Far Not Rising just went through a public hearing for revision] is the Western Not State campus.

After you make your obligatory stop at McDonald’s, however, you will now find your view of campus blocked, blocked by the self-funded edifice of one geologist’s glory. Eighty million dollars of steel, glass and brick, none of it looking like anything else on the campus it claims to be part of, and all of it now serving as the entrance: welcome to MY school, is what I hear when I look at it.

It completely eclipses in every way Western’s previous donor triumph, a $3 million donation that was intended to build a business department building but ultimately funded only half of it (and no one thought to get donor funds for the operation or maintenance of said building, located directly behind the new triumph).

Eighty million dollars. This is not, as you might think, a geology building. It is for a program that exists currently in small fashion — computer science — and for a program that doesn’t exist at all at this liberal arts college, I mean university: engineering. Because it’s not really worth the administration’s time to talk to faculty, and certainly never worth wasting on townspeople, I have trouble finding information that articulates the plan, but somehow this building that is of but not of Western will operate under the auspices of the University of Colorado-Boulder, my alma mater, although I want to assure you I steered completely clear of the engineering school.

The faculty that will teach in this building will come from Boulder, I guess, and the degree students get will be from CU. I’m not clear if they spend all four years in this building or eventually move to Boulder. I don’t have any specifics to offer you, nor does anyone I know. I’m sure it will all — 80 million dollars — work out.

Last fall sometime I sat down for a conversation with Erich Ferchau, son of a late WSC biologist and a current member of Western’s governing board. Erich is in real estate, so I was very surprised to hear him write this building off, since he thinks the future of education lies on-line. (This was months before a pandemic showed he might have something there.)

Erich did see this as the geologist’s prerogative to spend his own money as he chooses, although this also seems to have bestowed upon the geologist not only naming rights but ultimate authority over many campus activities, including all its marketing.

But as I wend my way around this massive blockade in search of fast food, particularly as I do so when the state’s Joint Budget Committee has announced plans to trim Colorado’s already underfunded higher ed by 58 percent (the way Colorado works or doesn’t, the JBC isn’t left with much choice), I can’t help but think of how far across the rest of campus $80 million could have spread. Think of the 80 million possibilities.

Or we can give a handful of students each year a degree from a school that isn’t even ours, and one geologist can stand, McDonald’s hamburger in hand, before his gleaming glass structure that sucks all the light from the inferior red brick and stucco buildings tucked stolidly behind, and he will hear the pharaohs whisper in his ear, It’s great to be king, isn’t it?

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