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Lehigh community shines during Dalai Lama visit

The temporary bookstore in the lobby of Stabler Arena stayed busy throughout the six days.

During the Dalai Lama’s just-completed six-day visit to Stabler Arena, Ryan Umholtz spent more time on his walkie-talkie than an 8-year-old in his new tree fort.

When audience members complained that Stabler’s 65-degree, in-arena temperature was too chilly, Umholtz listened to their concerns and calmly explained that the building was being kept that cool at the 73-year-old Dalai Lama’s request to combat the effects of the heat generated by the stage lights.

Last Sunday, when some newspaper reporters couldn’t get a wireless connection in Stabler Arena, Umholtz, Stabler’s events technical services coordinator, was summoned and helped come up with a solution.

One night, when the owner of local florist Elysian Fields called Stacy Burger, who works in the provost office, because the room temperature where the on-stage flowers for the Dalai Lama teachings were being stored felt slightly warmer than it had been other days, she immediately called Umholtz.

“Even though it was 9 o’clock at night, Ryan was great,” Burger said. “He rushed over to Stabler, called the HVAC people and made sure that everything was OK.”

Rich Fritz, the director of Stabler Arena, wasn’t surprised a bit by Umholtz’s MacGyver-like resourcefulness and calm under fire.

“I hired Ryan because of his ambition and can-do attitude,” Fritz says. “Those qualities, combined with the fact that he’s a true people person, make him an invaluable asset to Lehigh University and Stabler Arena.”

Umholtz wasn’t alone in the can-do attitude and long hours’ department during the Lehigh event, which Stabler’s box office manager Lisa Masterson called “the biggest, most complex, most involved event in Stabler history." According to Debra Hartzell Nyby, administrative director of the provost’s office who served as co-chair of the Dalai Lama Steering Committee, an estimated 370 Lehigh employees worked onsite at Stabler over the six days that the Tibetan spiritual and state leader spoke and taught at Stabler Arena.

Lehigh Police Chief Edward K. Shupp and his officers helped keep the Dalai Lama safe during his stay. Jose Catalan of One Source pitched in to help keep Stabler clean each day. Lori McClaind, assistant dean of students who served as co-chair of the volunteer committee, coordinated 39 Lehigh volunteers who performed a myriad of tasks inside and outside the arena. Laura Kressly-Bachman, assistant director of conference services, saw to it that the monks, nuns, volunteers and Tibetan students staying on campus were comfortable and cared for.

And Julie Scheller, who works in Lehigh’s printing and copying services, oversaw the printing of some 80 large signs with a common identity that covered every area of the event, including the lobbies of the hotels that were housing the event-goers. Her department also printed flyers in three different languages (Vietnamese, Chinese, Tibetan).

These are only a handful of the hundreds of Lehigh community members who helped make the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s historic visit such a success.

“This event turned out great because of the involvement of the entire university,” says Umholtz, who just started at Lehigh in mid-February. “I haven’t been here long but it’s great to see that the whole university pitches in to ensure that an event of this magnitude goes off without a hitch.

“People sit down and they often don’t realize the hours and hours of work that went on behind the scenes to make their experience a pleasurable one. People often don’t notice the little, behind-the-scenes things—the tablecloths that were cleaned each night, the video boards and sound system that are up and working so that the audience can see and hear the Dalai Lama no matter where they’re sitting, the way that a sign is designed, or the fact that the volunteers are organized, polite and enhance the experience. But some person—some Lehigh person—took the time to do that job and to do it well. There are a million minor details that go into a big event like this.”

Are you ready for some football?

It took hundreds of Lehigh employees to make sure the event ran smoothly.

In many cases, there is no rest—just an extra cup of coffee or three—for the weary. For Elaine Brophy, Lehigh’s catering director, and Bruce Christine, the general manager of Lehigh’s dining services department, it means immediately shifting gears from feeding Tibetan food to the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers to feeding quarterback Donovan McNabb and the rest of the Philadelphia Eagles.

For folks like Catalan, who has worked for One Source the past 17 years, and Kressly-Bachman, assistant director of conference services, there are final preparations to be made before a different, but no less fervent flock—namely, green and white-clad, Lombardi Trophy-starved Eagles fans—descends upon the Goodman Campus for Eagles’ training camp, which kicks off Monday.

Kressly-Bachman worked overtime during the Dalai Lama’s visit to ensure that volunteers, monks and Tibetan students were housed in the Brodhead, Emory, and Congdon residence halls and that all their needs were met, from recommendations on places to eat to making sure that guests had rides to the teachings and other places.

“This was a special event, unlike anything that I’ve ever worked on here at Lehigh,” says Catalan, who logged 14-hour-days during the six-day Dalai Lama event, arriving at 6 a.m. and then thoroughly cleaning up Stabler after the event ended each afternoon. “But all the hard work was worth it, because everyone seems happy with the final results.”

As co-chair of the volunteer committee, McClaind had an army of 39 volunteers—one faculty member (Susan Szczepanski, associate professor of mathematics), seven graduate students, 23 Lehigh staff members and six Lehigh undergraduate students.

“We had volunteers working in the bookstore, folks helping with seating and the information table, helping with the choir, directing people at the president’s luncheon, and had folks outside in the parking lot preventing people from bringing in bags that were too large,” McClaind says. “They did a great job. It went really smoothly.”

Like Umholtz, Catherine Plocinik, secretary to President Alice P. Gast, is a relative newcomer to Lehigh.

“I just started at Lehigh in March, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to be more involved in the community and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be involved in something like this,” says Plocinik, who handed out brochures and gave instructions in her volunteer role. “It was amazing how diverse the folks were at the teachings—everyone from a 5-year-old girl who looks like she just came from church to 50-, 60-year old monks, from people in suits to people in cut-off shorts.”

In addition to learning from His Holiness’ message of compassion, Plocinik met a slew of Lehigh people and came away quite impressed.

“It reinforced what I have been learning since I started. Lehigh is a community that doesn’t just stop with the students and faculty, but includes the community as well,” Plocinik says.

Working with the Stabler Arena staff, McClaind was able to pop in for a couple of teachings and for the public lecture Sunday.

“I thought it was great. When I was standing listening, I thought, ‘I’m here in Stabler, Jane Doe from wherever, and wow, I’m listening to the Dalai Lama speak,’” McClaind recalls. “His humbleness was really clear in his writings and well as the way he was conversing and gesturing.”

After playing a behind-the-scenes role in Lehigh’s Dalai Lama event, McClaind returned mid-week to preparing orientation events for Lehigh’s Class of 2012, who arrive on campus for the first time in roughly a month.

“This year’s reading assignment is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell,” McClaind says. “Our thought was to use this book to start talking about diversity. We had the book selected in February. We’re getting into a time crunch. Once August comes, the summer is over (for student affairs staff).”

Speaking of books, Mark Ironside, executive director of Lehigh’s business services, manned the main makeshift Tibetan souvenir shop and bookstore on the first floor of Stabler Arena from July 10-15.

During the slow periods—the two-hour blocks in the morning and afternoon while the Dalai Lama was actually teaching—Ironside and the bookstore team of volunteers looked a bit like a group of small children building sand castles at the beach. They would re-stack and replenish the supply of commemorative Dalai Lama coffee mugs and refold the souvenir t-shirts. Then, once that session’s teaching was complete, the wave of customers would come by and wipe out all their hard work—resulting in another round of restacking, replenishing and refolding.

With more than 200 book titles—ranging from Buddhist for Beginners to hard cover copies of The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment:The Lamrim Chenmo, the text on which the Dalai Lama was teaching—and seven different commemorative products, including the $4.98 coffee mug, a $10 poster and $11.98 t-shirt, the bookstore did a remarkable volume of business at their various locations in and around Stabler.

“We’re hearing that this is one of the largest Barnes and Noble events in terms of sales on a college campus for a single speaker within the past decade,” Ironside says.

And those sales numbers aren’t final yet, as Lehigh’s bookstore will continue to carry the products for “a while,” Ironside says. “Plus, we have orders to fill, such as a woman in Illinois who asked us to ship a dozen of the commemorative mugs.”

Much like other Lehigh employees who worked hard to pull off the Dalai Lama event, Ironside must immediately turn his attention to the next thing. In this case, it’s back to the on-campus bookstore to ensure that all the textbooks that Lehigh students need arrive on time and that the renovations to Lehigh’s Bookstore go as planned.

Kudos already rolling in

As a final gift to the Office of Tibet, Lehigh University has offered to write a guidebook on what it takes to prepare for a visit by His Holiness.

And on the event’s final day, Shupp received a gift of his own, a plaque in appreciation of his tireless work—much of it behind the scenes—from the U.S. State Department.

The plaque reads:

“In recognition of your exemplary performance and support of all U.S. Department of State protective operations associated with the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Lehigh University July 10-15, 2008. You exemplified the highest standards of professionalism and dedication to duty of the Lehigh Police Department. Your efforts and professionalism culminated in the successful historic visit.”

--Bill Doherty, Tricia Long and Becky Straw

Photos by Douglas Benedict and Theo Anderson

Posted on Friday, July 18, 2008

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