Learning From the Past: Professor Donald Walker

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Dr. Don Walker, 2017

A building can be more than just a structure that stands permanently in once place – the case for Mott Academic Center, the 50-year-old heart of The University of Olivet learning and development. Nearly every student’s educational journey includes Mott at the core, but more importantly, the relationships and memories that were created within. The building is named for Charles Stewart Mott, an engineer and entrepreneur, but also a philanthropist and public servant. Like the founders of The University of Olivet, Charles Mott was forward thinking and dedicated to helping others be more and do good.

In the spring issue of Shipherd’s Record, a special collection of stories shared more about Mott Academic Center’s past and future in “If These Walls Could Talk.” Mott has not stood still. It is alive, and it’s moving toward the next 50 years.This piece was written by Samantha Pearl ’00, director of alumni engagement, sharing a look into the history of Mott and its evolution through the eyes of retired history professor Dr. Donald Walker. Read the full magazine online now.

Dr. Don Walker, 1980-81

Dr. Donald Walker, a history professor at The University of Olivet for 50 years before his retirement in 2015, has a way of telling stories that allows you to actually see what he’s describing. As I sat down to talk to him about the Mott Academic Center, it was no different than the many hours I spent in his world history class almost 20 years ago.

Walker, or “Doc” as many of his students know him, began teaching at The University of Olivet in 1965. That was the year that Mather Hall was torn down to make way for Mott, and in the fall of that same year, construction of the Mott Academic Center began.

For two years, Walker and his colleagues worked out of temporary accommodations as Mott was built. For Walker, that meant a second-floor office in an old home at the site of what is now the Riethmiller-Blackman Art Building, as well as classrooms in locations such as the theater downtown and the basements of Dole Hall and Blair Hall.

The University of Olivet President M. Gorton Riethmiller breaks ground for the new Mott Academic Center.

“The first class I taught,” Walker explains, “was on a Saturday morning at 9 a.m. in the basement of Blair.” He said the classrooms were converted storage rooms with just a few high windows near the ceiling. They were lacking in outside light, and all winter they were cold. “Imagine how much students looked forward to coming to that classroom early on a Saturday morning,” he jokes, the memory still vivid. “In fact, this one winter morning, I found that someone had left the window open all night. It was obviously colder than usual. I thought to close the window, and when it seemed frozen open, I gave it a good whack. I shattered the window and sustained a few cuts.” He laughs and continues, “It was colder after that.”

The design of the Mott Academic Center was a departure from the typical style of buildings on campus, a fact that was noted by students, faculty, and alumni alike as it was being built. The desired function of the building – the vision for its strategic purpose – was clear, however, and then-President Gorton Riethmiller described the building’s design as the “biggest bang for the buck.” It’s a vision that appears to have remained constant for more than 50 years. “One of the things that makes Mott such a good teaching and learning environmentis that the building is a living entity,” Walker says. “It brings everyone together – both students and faculty. Students get to see not only fellow students in their own program, but also those from other programs, building a sense of community. It’s the same with faculty. This connectedness is important to creating the unity on campus that all schools seek.”

Students relax outside of the academic center, early 1970s

The design of the building also allowed for a flexibility that has served the campus community well for 50 years. Walker explains, “The size of the building didn’t change, but everything inside of it was fair game. Offices, both faculty and others, such as the Registrar’s Office, have been moved. As the needs of students have changed and evolved, the building has been redesigned to meet those needs, including offices for student support services and internships. In other words, the building was modified to fit whatever the needs of the college and its student body were. That the Mott building is still meeting the needs of students despite the passage of 50 years and nearly doubled enrollment is a testimony to the administration’s vision at the time it was built.”

Walker and I discussed how the upcoming renovations to Mott will benefit the campus community. “One of the things people get out of history is learning from the past,” Walker says. “The past has shown that changes are necessary to keep pace with what is happening in the academic world. One can’t stand still. As new needs arise, the administration must respond to them. I’m confident that the plans for the Mott Academic Center will do just that.”


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