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Synonymous: George Howe and the Red Barn

December 19th, 2007

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George Howe with wife Karen, executive assistant to UofL provost Shirley Willihnganz.

By Kevin Hyde

Ask anybody, past or present, at the University of Louisville who knows him and they will tell you the same thing: “George Howe and the Red Barn — it’s impossible to separate the two.”

That unmistakable link was strengthened even further Dec. 7 when the Red Barn, the site of countless university events for almost 40 years, officially was dedicated as the George J. Howe Red Barn.

“It was great, man,” said Howe, who was UofL’s first director of student activities when he came to the university 37-and-a-half years ago. He now is director of development and special projects. “Other than the day that I got married to Karen Howe, it was the greatest day of my life.”

The Red Barn was filled to capacity for the dedication and raised nearly $7,000 for the new George J. Howe Leadership Fund. The fund, which officials hope will become endowed quickly, will be used for leadership development activities, including student scholarships, speakers, travel, fundraising, equipment and supplies that support the advancement of student leadership at UofL.

Used to having an active hand in all of the more than 700 Red Barn events and services throughout a school year, the energetic Howe did his best to restrain himself as others prepared the venue for the dedication.

It wasn’t easy.

“But for me, I did a pretty good job,” he said laughing. “My wife had suggested as firmly as she could that I stay out of everybody’s way. And I listen to her a lot.”

A native of Pennsylvania, Howe came to UofL from West Virginia University. His first day was July 1, 1970, which “by pure chance” was the day UofL entered the state system.

“I came for the money,” Howe said of his initial $8,000 a year salary. “The president of the university, Dr. [Woodrow] Strickler, made 30. So eight was pretty good, man. It was about one-fifth of what the president made.”

A year before his arrival, the Red Barn survived its first close brush with the wrecking ball. A remnant of Caldwell Tanks Inc., the old 5,000-square-foot factory building stood on urban renewal land between Brook Street and the railroad tracks.

It had been unused for nearly a year and was scheduled for demolition when Harold Adams, UofL director of housing, and Gary Steedly, fraternity adviser, helped students rent the Red Barn for a year-end “beer party” in the spring of 1969. More than 300 people showed up.

The party not only was a huge success, but also was unique to other university events because it was practically on campus. It inspired students Louis Bornwasser, Mike Geralds and Danny Miller to ask the university to save the building.

“We did not have a student center at UofL,” Bornwasser told UofL magazine in 1984. “The barn literally was better than nothing. We told the administration, ‘Why tear this building down? With a little money we can do something with it.’ ”

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Original watercolor of the Red Barn by Gene Hatfield painted in 1989.

And do something they did. The building would soon become an invaluable venue for the school’s new Student Activities Department under Howe’s leadership.

“Before, the university handled student activities sort of piecemeal along with Greek affairs,” Howe recalled. “They organized big shows at Freedom Hall like Bill Cosby, the Fifth Dimension, Kenny Rogers.

“After I got there, we decided to stay out of the major concert business and focus our attention on the Red Barn • and then on building the SAC [Student Activities Center].”

In 1978 the future of the Red Barn again was jeopardized when urban renewal required that it be renovated. Howe, students and staffers David Lee, Harry Sparks and Adams successfully raised the necessary funds and the venue emerged practically new.

Throughout the years — and through the countless parties, concerts and other events the Red Barn has hosted — the venue took on the personality of its exuberant caretaker. When UofL faculty, staff, students and alumni think about Howe, they think about fun. When they think about the Red Barn, they think about fun.

But both the man and the building represent more than good times, said John Chamberlain, a UofL communications and marketing specialist who has known Howe for 25 years.

“When people on this campus think about George Howe, they think about deep, genuine concern for students,” he said.

Each year the Red Barn provides need-based scholarships to assist students with their studies via three endowed programs: the Harold Adams Memorial Scholarship Fund, Florence M. Strickler Endowment and Torchbearer Endowment. Since 1988, they have provided more than 900 scholarship awards totaling more than $150,000. Their combined market value is almost $440,000.

Efforts to dedicate the Red Barn in Howe’s honor began last spring, said Frank Mianzo, assistant to the vice president for student affairs. The UofL Board of Trustees approved it over the summer.

“It sailed right through,” Mianzo said. “Nobody thought this would go through this fast. We really thought it would be a two-year process. But this was a different kind of situation. Just like the Red Barn is a different kind of building.”

Mianzo added that it was important to do the dedication before Howe retires, “although he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Howe confirms that he has no imminent plans for retirement.

“I can’t retire. I don’t play golf,” he said. “I collect cans.”

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