After thirty years with the campus physical plant, director Eldon Kurtz leaves behind a changed landscape

This June, Eldon Kurtz will conclude 19 years as physical plant director and over 30 total years of employment and service at Eastern Mennonite University. (EMU photos)

This profile of Eldon Kurtz was originally published in the Feb. 18, 2016, edition of The Weather Vane. We’re grateful for the contributed copy, as we can’t possibly profile each one of the many long-time employees retiring from EMU this spring. An article featuring vignettes about each of our retirees will run in April.

The brand-new Campus Center, in 1986, was the first major building project that Eldon Kurtz oversaw on the Eastern Mennonite University campus. Thirty years later, the new Suter Science Center will be his last project. Kurtz, physical plant director, will retire at the end of the spring 2016 semester.

Despite his low profile, Kurtz has become an integral part of campus life and earned the admiration of many.

“He’s one of those classic lifelong learners,” said Sustainability Coordinator Jonathan Lantz-Trissel. “He’s very engaged on campus, on what students are talking about, and on what campus community is buzzing about.”

Sophomore Josh Calderon, who worked with the physical plant as a summer conference and events assistant last summer, echoed Lantz-Trissel’s sentiments. “He brings a different sort of care to the job,” said Calderon. “He not only works here, but if you walk into that stadium during a basketball game, you’ll see him up there. That’s how you know someone loves his job.”

Work-study position starts career

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Kurtz’s story begins in 1973, when he enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College as an undergraduate student in the Bible department. Thanks to previous skill in the electrical trade, he immediately began working in a work-study position as an electrician for what was then known as the Building and Grounds Department.

Kurtz also was residence director in Oakwood men’s dorm, where he lived with his wife, Sharyl (their daughter Sara, who would eventually graduate from EMU, was born while they lived at EMU).

After graduation in 1976, Kurtz moved directly into the director of custodial services role, where he served for 9 months before being promoted into a newly created role of physical plant director where he remained until 1985.

Kurtz then worked with Brunk Mechanical in construction, which included overseeing construction for the new Campus Center.

Afterward, Kurtz parted ways with EMU until 1997, when his old job opened up. He was happy to return and has served as physical plant director ever since.

“He was the right person at the right place at the right time,” said Lantz-Trissel. “He graduated from here, and he was a trade person, and all that has been really important.”

Sustainability initiatives implemented

Kurtz reflects that his greatest contribution of many may be the improvements in campus energy efficiency. “Controls in the old days were much more rudimentary,” he said. “We had a central heating plant and we distributed steam all over the campus. When I came back in ’97, I dug up an old energy report from 1980, and I’ve traced our energy usage, BTU per square feet.”

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With Will Hairston, supervisor of the grounds (left), and James Hershberger, who donated the peace oak in 2013.

Since that first report, Kurtz has overseen almost a tripling in heating efficiency, from 140,000 BTU per square feet to the current level of 45,000 BTU per square feet.

”We could easily be spending another $300,000 to half a million per year in energy costs if we hadn’t been operating with the kind of vigilance we have been doing,” he said. “Our department has contributed pretty significantly to the reduction of costs to the university.”

Energy reduction costs have not been the only significant changes ushered in under Kurtz. In his time, EMU has transformed its recycling program, constructed LEED-certified buildings, built what was at the time the largest solar array in Virginia, and grown in dozens of other ways.

“Even within two years here, so much has changed,” said Calderon, noting that whenever an outdoor lamp goes out, “I see one of these nice new LEDs pop up. I mean, that’s not something they have to do, they probably have extra fluorescents laying around, but he makes it happen anyway.”

Cooperation, teamwork, customer service

Before any of these changes happened, however, Kurtz first wanted to foster an environment of loyalty and friendliness in the Physical Plant. His hard work appears to have paid off.

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Assistant director Ed Lehman with Eldon Kurtz (in a favorite pose!)

“Probably the other thing I’m happiest and proudest about is having the good fortune to assemble a team of really excellent people and trying to engender a spirit of cooperation and teamwork and customer service,” said Kurtz. “That was really important to me.”

Andrew Troyer, a first-year work-study employee at the plant, noted the dedication and sincerity of his employers. “A lot of nice people work in the Physical Plant,” Troyer said. “They’re just a fun group to work with. They’ll let you try something out, give you an opportunity, and they’re willing to teach you stuff.”

According to Lantz-Trissel, that receptiveness stems directly from Kurtz. “If you take him some wild idea, he’s going to sit and listen to it,” Lantz-Trissel said. “That means that EMU has pushed more boundaries because other schools are more rigid and say ‘no’ more often than they ought. I remember early in my parenting years, Eldon sent me his advice for young parents: ‘Whenever possible, say yes.’ He kind of runs with that mentality.”

Kurtz, on the other hand, pins the success of his department to the people around him.

“Over the years, I’ve been challenged by people that were better than me, but I’ve learned that it’s better to have people who challenge me than surrounded by mediocre people,” said Kurtz.

This June, Kurtz will conclude 19 years as physical plant director and over 30 total years of employment and service at EMU.

“It seems like it’s gone so fast, and I love the people here, and I’m so glad to have an environment where you’re trusted, and trusted to do the right thing for your employer,” said Kurtz. “You can make a case for what you want to do, you know, and you generally get support. I’m just leaving to give someone else a chance.”