Kerry Romesburg’s multifaceted legacy as Jacksonville University’s president includes guiding the institution out of an inherited financial predicament and helping to restore the alumni’s faith in their alma mater.
But it’s the realization of Romesburg’s vision to better utilize the picturesque St. Johns River as JU’s backdrop that will be set in stone on campus – literally.
On Thursday night, Jan. 31, during a moving and memorable dinner honoring Romesburg’s nine years at the university’s helm, the Board of Trustees presented the outgoing president and his wife, Judy, with a resolution naming the westernmost area of campus “Romesburg Riverfront.”
After a 40-year career in higher education, Romesburg’s last day on the job was Friday, Feb. 1; he will remain on board as a consultant to new JU President Tim Cost until May.
“Because of Jacksonville University’s emphasis on highlighting the campus’s natural beauty under (Romesburg’s) leadership, the university is much more attractive to potential students,” Board of Trustees Chairman Ron Autrey said at the dinner, reading from the resolution honoring the Romesburgs.
The Marine Science Research Institute, Negaard Rowing Center, Strom Amphitheatre, Dolphin Green, Swisher Golf Facility, Kurzius Beach and Cost Trail were developed on Romesburg’s watch. A “virtual unveiling” of the Romesburg Riverfront sign, which has not yet been erected, was displayed in a video production at the dinner at Davis College of Business.
“When I came to the school, that’s the first thing I said: ‘Why don’t’ we do everything we can to maximize our riverfront location?’” Romesburg said after being presented with the resolution. “I am so, so humbled by this.”
Noting that the couple has charitably donated to the university as well, the Board of Trustees presented the Romesburgs with a case of wine labeled “JU Green” and gave Judy Romesburg a bouquet of roses. Also, JU Alumni Association President Matt Tuohy announced that the Romesburgs have been selected as honorary JU alumni, a distinction previously bestowed to only five others.
Tuohy, a JU Board of Trustees member, said in an interview after the dinner that he thinks that if Romesburg hadn’t taken the president’s job, the university may be closed today.
“Kerry was the perfect person at the perfect place at the right time,” Tuohy said.
The Romesburgs were joined at the dinner’s head table by their sons, Rod and Don; JU Chancellor Emeritus Frances Bartlett Kinne; Cost and his wife, Stephanie; and Autrey and his wife, Hilah. Autrey, Kinne and Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown spoke during the event in tribute of Romesburg’s leadership ability, teambuilding skills and attention to details. Some of the exiting leader’s idiosyncrasies, particularly his affinity for chocolate, also were targeted by the speakers.
Brown said that like other great leaders, Romesburg brought passion, purpose and power to the table from the day he set foot on campus.
“He came in with a passion. He came in talking about the possibilities,” said Brown, a two-time JU alumnus and former trustee who served on the presidential search committee that interviewed Romesburg in 2004. “He understood the value of education to the next generation of young people.
“We are very, very blessed and fortunate to have someone who served with distinction to lead this university from a deep, deep hole. We brought in the best.”
Autrey said Romesburg was just what the doctor ordered in 2004, when JU’s challenges included seven consecutive years of deficit spending and fiscal probation from accreditors.
“Kerry Romesburg built the confidence in the trustees that he could head the ship to our destination. He showed Jacksonville that we were once again Jacksonville’s University,” Autrey said. “And now, he gives it back to us a far better place.”
But, noting Romesburg’s legendary sweet tooth, Autrey also threw in: “He’s taken dessert to a new level.”
Kinne said she was certain that Romesburg was the right choice for JU from Day 1.
“For me, he was like a knight. He rode in on his stallion and suddenly the clouds started to disappear,” Kinne said.
Following Autrey’s lead and noting that Romesburg is prone to skip breakfast and forego lunch, except for chocolate cake, Kinne also quipped, “But I’m not going to recommend the way he eats.”
Artis Gilmore, the JU basketball legend who served as Romesburg’s special assistant to the president for the past five years, said before the dinner that all eyes were on Romesburg when he started – and the newcomer delivered in a big way.
“All of us, the alumni, were aware that this institution really was struggling financially and otherwise,” Gilmore said. “And now we know the great things that have happened are attributable to Kerry and his extraordinary leadership. He is leaving Jacksonville University in great shape.”
Romesburg’s record of strong leadership began long before he moved to Jacksonville. During his tenure as president of Nevada State College from 2002-2004, NSC achieved accreditation and increased its enrollment five-fold.
From 1988 to 2002, Romesburg served as the president of Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah, where the college changed its mission from a two-year community college to a four-year state college. With Romesburg as president, enrollment at UVSC grew from 6,000 students to nearly 25,000 and increasing the college’s endowment from $280,000 to more than $41 million.
He also served as executive director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education and worked in higher education with the Arizona Board of Regents and Arizona State University.
Noticeably moved by the tribute, Romesburg told the trustees Thursday that the board members, faculty, alumni and students share equally in the university’s success during his tenure.
“Yes, we’ve come a long way,” he said. “But it wasn’t me. It was us.
“(JU) shouldn’t have been in the shape it was when I got here. It’s a great institution … We’ve got a good foundation and we’re moving in the right direction. And I’ve got to tell you, I think Tim Cost is the right person to take us forward.”