Operation Move In

When I showed up as a freshman to get the key to my room in Crawford Hall on the campus of Tennessee Tech University, a couple of student workers welcomed me to college and pointed me to the stair well closest to room 311.

The three-story building didn’t have air conditioning, had one wall phone for each hallway, communal showers in two big, shared bathrooms on each floor and one laundry area in the basement. I had a set of bed linens, too many clothes, an electric typewriter and my textbooks–more stuff than my mother wanted me to take, but almost nothing by today’s standards.

Modest version of today’s student residence

Today, college residence hall nest-making is big business. Retailers from Lowe’s to Wal-Mart to Bed, Bath & Beyond start early in summer trying to sell students on the idea that they aren’t just moving onto campus, they’re making their own, first homes.

And over the three decades since I went away to school, colleges have adapted to changing preferences for more apartment-like and less dorm room-like accommodations.

Universities have also realized the opportunity they have to reach out and make students feel welcome by declaring a “move-in day” and showing up en masse with smiles and helping hands.

Which brings us to UTC’s 2019 “Operation Move In.” It took place on Thursday, Aug. 15, before the Monday that classes began on Aug. 19. The scheduling is to enable parents a weekend, if they need it, to help their new college kids get fully situated in their homes away from home. The weekend also lets students get a feel for campus and its surroundings.

Just a few weeks on the job, I wasn’t able to help at move-in day 2018. The big doin’s are coordinated by campus housing officials, known formally as the Office of Housing and Residence Life. This year, as in all years, that office began recruiting volunteers in June. Hearing the effort was still about 200 helpers short at the first of August, I signed up both Bill and myself.

Almost a dozen student housing complexes are home to about a third of the student body of roughly 12,000. That includes approximately 1,500 freshmen who are required to live on campus if their hometowns are 45 miles or more from UTC.

Among the remaining volunteer locations when I signed us up was Decosimo Apartments. Those mean something to me because that’s where I lived for a month in 2018 before Bill and I got moved from Knoxville to Chattanooga.

Bill’s 2018 move-in stint at Decosimo.
How did I have this much stuff to move in just for a month?
My very un-decorated Decosimo apartment of 2018.

I know my way around the building and the parking area there, so I signed myself up to help students carry in their belongings and for Bill to help direct traffic as parents had 20 minutes to unload cars at building entrances before finding long-term parking. Bill was OK with that assignment, he told me, emphasizing he wanted no part of lugging stuff into the building or up its stairwells.

Nope, no elevators in ‘Dee-co.’

All across campus, hundreds of volunteering employees–and their spouses, in many cases such as mine–made up a well-established system of coordination. Students with even-numbered room assignments were installed in the morning, odd-numbered assignments in the afternoon.

Bill inspects belongings to organize for hauling.

I knew the majority of my fellow employees we volunteered with and, per usual, Bill didn’t meet a stranger. He soon was pointing out the shortcut to this or the easiest way to that, and carrying loads inside despite swearing he wouldn’t be hauling anything.


Linens and clothing were just the start. Flat-screen TVs, cookware, dishes, shelving and every kind of blinged-out decor item went up the stairs that day. Cardboard from all the newly unboxed stuff and all the moving boxes had to be carried outside to a dumpster. Far too much of that flying to toss it into trash chutes. The dumpster outside had to be emptied at least once in the middle of the day.

Even the chancellor helped.

Parents mostly were too busy to get choked up about the milestone moment they were in the midst of, and students mostly were excited about the milestone moment they had long anticipated.

Representatives of student organizations surfed by every residence complex, handing out freebies and invitations to join this or that group.

Even Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke stopped by to greet some of the few thousand of his city’s newest residents.

Mayor Berke welcomes a Nashville couple and their son to campus and the city.

On-campus living bears little residence to the time when I was a student living on a campus, but helping this generation get settled was fun for Bill and me, and it was a great window into what students care about and the people who care about them.

Sometimes You Meet the Nicest People

Throughout my career, my line of work–in one setting or another–has steadily called for writing professionally. Often, the storytelling variety, which is my favorite writing to do.

If you don’t know what it’s like to have writing be part of your job, I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s a great way to meet all kinds of interesting people you otherwise wouldn’t.

The best part? You can meet the nicest people and, sometimes, just how nice they are can come as a great surprise.

Enter: Gary and Kathleen Rollins.

He’s a 1967 alumnus of UT Chattanooga. She is his wife.

Mr. Rollins is a UTC business grad, in fact, and earlier this year, he decided to make a gift of $40 million dollars to his alma mater.

Forty. Million. Dollars.

Not only is that a lot of money, it’s the most money ever in a single gift to  UTC. A history-making amount. A game changer.

To commemorate the gift, UTC leadership sought to formally name the College of Business the Gary W. Rollins College of Business. Once that was approved by the UT Board of Trustees in June, the wheels got in motion for a day of major celebrations–three, in fact, all in sequence.

Sitting in on about two months of weekly planning sessions was a great opportunity to get better-acquainted with my UTC colleagues after beginning a new job in June. From a campus-wide celebration–complete with marching band, cheerleaders, hot dogs and speeches–to an evening reception to a formal dinner, you couldn’t count all the moving parts. Those of us planning and managing some of those parts were rightfully serious about making sure everything was buttoned up.

After all, Mr. Rollins is vice chairman and CEO of Rollins, Inc., a New York Stock Exchange corporation with many holdings including Orkin, the world’s largest pest control company. He moves in some elite circles. I followed the lead of my new colleagues in the College of Business and the Office of Development (fundraising), because they had done the work that brought us to this unprecedented moment. My job was to see that the word got out.

The Rollinses would have a jam-packed schedule of celebrations on what came to be known as “Rollins Day” on campus–Sept. 13–yet they agreed to add to their schedule an interview with me. I would ask questions off-camera, and our crack videographers and still photographer would get the visuals; then I would produce content for the news media, our website and our alumni magazine.

From talking to Mr. Rollins, I learned that he was born in Chattanooga, graduated from high school in Delaware and chose UTC for college, in part, because of close proximity to family in Chattanooga and North Georgia. He also said with a laugh, “I could get in.”

From meeting him and his wife, Kathleen, I learned they are unassuming, friendly and gracious.

That’s me you can’t see here, sitting across the table from Kathleen and Gary Rollins.

He was self-deprecating in his remarks. She wanted the moment to be about him.

After virtually the entire 15-minute interview had been spent asking Mr. Rollins questions that he answered, I asked Mrs. Rollins if there was anything she’d like to say or add.

“No, thank you,” she said, smiling and patting him on the shoulder. “This is his day.”

Kathleen and Gary Rollins at UTC’s public celebration of their unprecedented gift of $40 million.

I wrote a press release distributed that day and a magazine feature that publishes later this month. My colleagues who shot the photos (all of those above are by Angela Foster) and who shot the video and edited it (Mike Andrews and Jacob Cagle) perfectly captured the anticipation and excitement on campus for the celebrations, and the warmth and approachability of the Rollinses. I encourage you to check that out for yourself in the video below.

It’s three minutes that I bet you can’t watch without a smile on your face by the end.

Because, I discovered, they really are just the nicest people.