Gene Barton: No longer in operations

CHAMPAIGN – Here's a quick quiz: Who has the unenviable task of overseeing operations for all the following University of Illinois facilities and programs?

a) The Assembly Hall.

b) The Illini Union.

c) Willard Airport.

d) McKinley Health Center.

e) Campus Recreation.

f) The UI Housing Division.

If you answered Gene Barton, you're right. But a little over 30 days from now, you won't be – because the longtime UI administrator is retiring at the end of July.

He'll be succeeded by Mike DeLorenzo, who has handled similar duties at the UI's Chicago campus.

Barton, 63, has been the UI's associate vice chancellor for student affairs for 20 years. He said "the time is right" for him to retire, and he has no plans to take another job at this point.

Rene Romano, the vice chancellor of student affairs and Barton's boss, said she tried to talk him out of retiring.

"He's a great connection for us with the community," she said. "Besides that, he's fun to work with; he's open, he's honest. I'm sorry to see him go."

Barton has the unusual job of overseeing the UI's auxiliary enterprises and getting student input on their operation. That includes setting student fees that help pay for operations.

He balances "student interests on one hand and fiduciary interests on the other," said Craig Bazzani, the UI's former vice president of business and finance. It's difficult, Bazzani said, but Barton does it well.

"He's a very bright man; very smart, but very affable. He's one of the easiest people I've worked with in my career," Bazzani said. "I doubt Gene has an enemy on campus, and that's hard to do when you're in a senior position."

Barton gets good reviews from students too.

"Administrators tend to view students in three ways," said Ryan Ruzic, last year's student body president. "Either as a 'pile' they have to shovel through the system, or as 'customers' who buy the education product the university is selling, or – this is rare – as citizens of the community.

"That's how Gene Barton views us, and it's reflected in his work and interactions with us," Ruzic said. "He's one of very few people who would take time outside of work to interact with students."

Barton, a native of southern Illinois, put himself and his wife, Kathy, through Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville by working at bars and restaurants during college. After graduating, they both taught public school, he as a physical education teacher and gymnastics coach.

Later, he took at job at the student union at the Edwardsville campus. That led to student-and-facilities-oriented jobs at universities in Rolla, Mo.; Dearborn, Mich.; and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Barton thinks being around students so long helped keep him young.

"I'm 63 years old, but I feel like 21," he said.

He's always surprised when a college student stops to ask him the time and calls him "sir."

"Sir?" he said, reacting as if it were both a shock and an affront.

Barton said he's pleased with what's been accomplished during his years here. He said there are two major things that haven't been completed: what to do with the Assembly Hall and developing a master plan for Willard Airport.

He said the university figures it will probably cost about $100 million to upgrade the Assembly Hall for the next 25 years – assuming men's basketball will still be played there.

That would cover the cost of renovating restrooms and concession facilities, adding air conditioning, lowering the basketball floor to accommodate more students around the court and adding "club" and "bunker" suites above.

Barton said he's still waiting for UI trustees to authorize a master plan for the airport. He said a hotel company, two restaurant companies and a shipping firm have shown interest in locating there, but he can't negotiate without knowing what parts of the property might be appropriate for development.

Meanwhile, plans are under way to begin replacing residence halls on campus, starting with the "Six Pack" at First Street and Gregory Drive in Champaign. The biggest question concerning new housing: whether the university develops the housing itself or leases it from a private developer.

Barton said his biggest problem involves his biggest asset – namely, when employees of the facilities he oversees aren't being used to their best advantage.

He said it's his job to recognize their talents and put them in the right place, where they'll be successful.

So what's the right place for him after retirement?

Barton describes himself as an "avid fan of the performing arts." He hopes retirement will give him more time to enjoy concerts and performances and to travel too.

His wife, Kathy, retired six years ago as an English and fine arts teacher at Centennial High School, and since then, she's traveled to Italy and Germany.

But poor Gene – "I only get to look at the photos when she comes back."

Besides travel, Barton hopes to play more golf and he'll probably continue his morning walks.

He takes one between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m., and it's a time of solitude, not idleness.

"I don't do earphones," he said. "I think a lot."

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