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Ron Tola departs

After eight years of serving the College as director of Facilities Management, Ron Tola is transitioning out of his position to take the same role at Princeton Day School in Princeton, NJ. A graduate of nearby Villanova University, and with a master’s in engineering from The College of New Jersey, Tola joined the Haverford community in July 2004, after six years at Old Dominion University and 25 years at The College of New Jersey. Don Campbell, from the United States Naval Academy, will be Haverford’s new director of Facilities Management. The Clerk editor Danny Rothschild recently sat down with Tola to talk about his time at Haverford.

What’s a typical day as director of Facilities Management?

A typical day is filled with fun, excitement and a wide variety of challenges. Part of the day I spend dealing with the day-to-day maintenance activities and part of the day I deal with long-term capital planning, which is much more complex and is becoming the major part of this position. I’ll have four, five, six meetings with either students, faculty or administration. Most of the time it’s meetings, it’s trying to form consensus in terms of complex capital issues and it’s dealing with a number of physical plant needs on the operation side because we have a big need for funding of certain areas. The two areas most in need of major dollars would be HCA and faculty housing. The next group would be the DC, Sharpless, Magill, and Union. Generally speaking the academic areas are in the best condition. We spent $1.2 million on the dormitories, in addition to the new dormitories. Clearly HCA and faculty are in need of the most dollars.

Every day was exciting; it was a great place. I enjoyed working here. Every day is a new challenge.

What I’ve enjoyed the most is the people who work here are very nice and committed. The student body has been absolutely a joy to work with. The input that they gave us on the new dorm and working with the housing committee—this has been an enjoyable experience.

[My interaction with students is in] the top ten percent of any director in the country, for two reasons. One, because the size of the institution allows that to happen. The second thing is that the students here are more involved. The students here are so involved in what goes on. Other places the students are ambivalent to Facilities. Old Dominion had 21,000 students. I was isolated. Here, you’re right there. The students have been great.

How often are you on campus now?

Once a week. I’ve been on the phone quite a bit in a transitional role, between trying to wrap up and trying to get ready for the new director to make sure that we have the information available to the new director to decrease his learning time.

I’m also going to stay on as the college’s representative for the U.S. Open that’s going to be held [at Merion Golf Club] in June 2013. I’ll still be the point person for that. I was the one who negotiated that contract, so I understand what’s in it and it’s a little bit complex, so I’ll be coming in once in a while and I’m gonna continue to be in one day per week. I’m gonna do the presentation at the property committee for the October Board meeting, and then after that we’ll see.

How long have you been working on the U.S. Open project?  

We signed the contracts six years ago—that’s how much they plan in advance. Obviously the golf world has changed from Tiger to no Tiger to Tiger coming back and a lot of those changes really impact the Open. The number of people coming to the Open is varied from their expectations. At one point it was much higher, then it went down, now it’s back up again.

How did you change Haverford during your time here?

I think Haverford changed, but I don’t think I changed Haverford. I was in charge of the master plan, and the master plan allowed for a lot of reflection from various members of the campus community. I think that dialogue kind of ended up with people saying, is that who we want to be? Is that who we are?

I’ve been through two presidents, one interim president and planned for a fourth; three provosts; and I had one boss who was the greatest boss that I ever worked for, Dick Wynn.

We went through a number of changes in this department in terms of how we serve the campus. One of the primary goals was to develop communication with students and faculty and the administration and I think we’ve done that. I think people are comfortable coming here. I think we are highly focused, service-oriented. The first thing we say is yes, then we find out why we shouldn’t have, but we generally try to say yes, so I think the culture is very customer-oriented.

I didn’t change anything. I was part of change…an institutional change, in terms of re-evaluating priorities. Hence we got the new dorms. This change isn’t done: this college has a lot of important decisions to make.

I understand you’re leaving for health reasons?

I turned 63, the house at the shore [in Hamilton, NJ] is paid for, I’ve been at work my entire life, and Mrs. Tola said, “It’s time.” I’m feeling good. One of the biggest issues was when I work here I take a train two hours in, two hours out, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then I stay Tuesdays and Thursdays. The train is shaking up my spinal fluid. My spinal fluid isn’t like yours. Yours, the pressure’s constant. Mine goes up and down. So what happens is I’m on this train, I get this headache that I can’t walk down the hall to go to the bathroom. But I’m feeling good. We could have moved, but my wife told me, “Hmm you, I ain’t moving.”

I’m gonna live. I ain’t dying any time soon, but the change in lifestyle allows four hours less train ride a day. I was married 39 years last Saturday and we’re trying to make 40. So it’s time.

And Haverford’s just been an absolute pleasure to be here. The students, I think that’s what made it special, but the faculty too. They can be a pain, no question. And they’re more of a pain with the faculty housing and they have a right to be. So let’s not think they’re dissatisfied—it’s the same with the students that call from HCA. We should be taking care of that and you talk to anybody, HCA’s probably 50 times better than when I got here, it was much worse, and we made it better but we didn’t get there, there’s still a way to go.

Where are you from?

I grew up in downtown Trenton [NJ] in a low-income area, and I was lucky enough that I got into Villanova, and I live in Hamilton right on the border of Princeton now. Hence, why I came back from Old Dominion. Old Dominion was a great school, I was having a blast, but I just missed home, and this [job] allowed me—actually, when we first came back, [my wife] Carol and I lived here. She said, “Hmm you, I’m going back to Hamilton.”

He shows me a sign that says,“The Don.” What appear to be bolts are spent .44 magnum shells.   

The guys made me a little thing. We have fun. This is a little bit different from most physical plants. It’s been a hoot. I tried to keep it informal, tried to keep it fun, drove a lot of people nuts, but we had fun. The crew here’s good. They’re good people.

This place has 1.5 million square feet; PDS [Princeton Day School] has 300 thousand. No dorms, no faculty housing, ten minutes from the house.

Up until this year I basically lost most of my vacation, I never got to go. But this year, my wife said, “You gotta go.” Divorce is a privilege of the rich, and I’m not rich, and the second line of the Constitution talks about domestic tranquility.

I’m going to be the Director of Facilities [at PDS], but it’s ten minutes [from home]. Different ballgame. The amount of work we have says I can take my vacations. When you can’t take your vacations, that’s ok at 50. That ain’t ok at 63, after you have this. He is referring to his health. If I didn’t have this I’d probably still be putting 100-hour weeks in, but, no more. And it’s all good because I’m healthy, I feel good, I just can’t ride the trains. So it’s all good. Tell everybody, if you write one thing, I really enjoyed my time here, because people have been great.

Tola wears a large, blue ring on the fourth finger of his right hand. I ask him about it.

This is my Villanova ring. That’s a lindy star. I don’t do gold, I don’t buy nothing, but I always wanted a blue star so I had it put in. One day I’m working in the backyard.

He takes me over to his computer and shows me a picture of a koi pond.

This is my hobby, this used to be my swimming pool, and I told my daughters any two weeks you don’t swim in it I’m turning it to a goldfish pond. Every day I would go back there and work. So one day I’m working, I’m exhausted, and I lose the ring, and I think the ring went into the damn pond—I thought I heard a thump. So at least four times I drained the pond and I went in to get it. I drained it two feet so the fish lived. Fifteen years later I’m digging up a tree, I find the ring. Swear to God, fifteen years later.

What are some out-of-the-ordinary days you’ve had here?

Out of the ordinary? Out of the ordinary would be the day we had 32 inches of snow; the day that we had five high voltage equipment failures that happened concurrently. Another exciting day was the day I was sitting at this table and that fish soaked everybody at the table. Whoever sits here gets it. One day he just went bang, meeting over, because everything on the table got wet.

Tola refers to his enormous fish in a tank in the corner of his office.

It’s a Pacu, it’s a vegetarian Pirhanna. It doesn’t eat fish. It eats vegetables, but I feed it dogfood. My last one I had for nine years. They last about twelve years.

My son-in-law’s brother is taking him. He’s gonna move on to bigger and better things.