Alumni are changing the face of the city
Each day reveals ever more reasons to appreciate living and learning in this ultimate collaboration between city and university — where alumni across industries and interests, generations as well as geographies, will always feel at home.
This is not a college town. This is a university city — where the limitless offerings of Ohio State and Columbus intersect constantly to redefine the urban landscape, inspiring a particular degree of passion in alumni and citizens alike.
It’s what we share when we talk about our experiences here, as students and graduates, leaders and learners local and global, fans and Buckeyes.
“I always felt that I had this deep connection to Columbus. It was an important part of my id, my reason for being,” said Betsy Pandora ’06, ’10 MCRP. The champion of the city and Short North neighborhood between campus and downtown was born here. Now, as executive director of the Short North Alliance, she has made it her business to better the neighborhood that perhaps most exemplifies the city’s revitalization.
“More than at any other point in the last 100 years, we are seeing Columbus develop at such a rapid pace that we’re truly at the precipice,” she said. “But there’s still that awesome, collaborative spirit. That Columbus spirit. That Buckeye spirit. I absolutely treasure it and connect with every single neighborhood in the city.”
For Pandora, it was a position in education and outreach at the Wexner Center for the Arts that made her realize she wanted to play a role in making cultural experiences more accessible for all in her community. This led her to return to Ohio State for a master’s in city and regional planning, then to work as a bicycle and pedestrian advocate within the public health department, where she helped establish Columbus Art Walks. All of it feeds into her contributions to Columbus today.
“I always had the general understanding that, as goes the Short North, so goes Columbus,” Pandora said. “We’ve seen such an evolution.”
Such an evolution of the city is in large part the legacy of esteemed alumni who led the way as innovators and entrepreneurs — first and foremost, Dayton-born Les Wexner ’59, ’86 HON, one of Ohio State’s most ardent advocates.
What is now a $12 billion retail empire known as L Brands began with a single shop, The Limited, which he opened in 1963 in the suburb of Upper Arlington. At the time, he was just a couple years removed from minding his parents’ “ladies’ specialty store” so they could take their first vacation in 15 years. Their tiny shop downtown on State Street, just 13 feet wide at its broadest point, was named Leslie’s, for him.
And today, for him, there is no better city than Columbus, nor any university comparable to Ohio State.
“Columbus is unique as compared to almost any other city in the country,” Wexner said. “The city and the university both have this enormous advantage. From the university’s point of view, it’s being in a city that’s progressive, that’s welcoming, that’s growing, that is international. That has a viable social and business life. From the city’s point of view, the university will always be the largest employer, the source of talent and knowledge. It’s so fortunate. The city would be entirely different if everything were the same except there was no Ohio State.”
Wexner himself would be different as well without the university in his life. He recalled an elective course in urban geography he took as a business major — and credited the ideas it sparked to eventually grow his business in shopping centers around the city, the country and the world. “Henry Hunker was the professor. I probably have one of the greatest, most vivid memories of him. He exposed me to ideas about the megalopolis and why American cities were growing so rapidly,” Wexner said.
“Freeways and urban sprawl, those were kind of new ideas,” he said. “And I thought they were significant ones. So I decided that I was interested in the city center of Columbus, and, if I had a magic wand as an undergraduate, how I would replan it.”
The city today is so much a product of Ohio State students waving those magic wands over decades and disciplines. Curt Moody ’73, who played basketball for the Buckeyes, went on to become another hero in Columbus as the architectural mastermind behind some of the biggest transformations to campus and city life in recent memory. His firm Moody Nolan, the largest African American-owned architecture office in the country, designed Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center, the Recreation and Physical Activity Center (RPAC) and, his favorite, the new Ohio Union.
“As an alum, when you come back to Columbus, you go to the Union, because you’ve got the history there,” he said. It was where you saw friends who weren’t in your classes, where you could play a few hands of cards or just catch up. “It pulls you there because it’s a place to go to relax and to socialize. It’s equivalent to a university club.”
Outside this great campus gathering place along High Street — that thoroughfare that physically connects university and city — is a lively street scene, shops and restaurants, a film center, bars serving local craft beers and more projects in progress. It is here that the campus area transformation is merging with that of the Short North, where the efforts of alumni like Moody meet those of Pandora as if under the magic wand Wexner imagined years ago.
You also may find the influential Buckeye Stephanie Hightower ’81, record-breaking hurdler on the Ohio State track team, four-time U.S. 100-meter hurdles champion, Pan-American Games silver medalist and former president of USA Track & Field. On her winning career track, she has served as president of the Columbus Board of Education and worked for former mayor and fellow alum Greg Lashutka ’67, ’99 HON.
Hightower recently secured Columbus as host of the 2018 National Urban League Conference and its 15,000 guests, crediting tremendous investments in the city and its culture for winning it such an honor.
“We used to say Columbus was the best-kept secret in town,” she said. “It was good when people started saying, ‘We don’t want to be a secret anymore. We want you to know about what we do here.’”
Her pitch for the conference, she recalled, went something like, “Come be surprised by the level of culture, the level of diversity, the level of job opportunities, the commitment to philanthropy that people have here. Come and experience it, and I promise that you’ll want to bring your business, your family.”
Wexner presented a similar scenario for the desirability of the city, with equal appeal to newcomers and lifelong locals. “When I think of Columbus, I think quality of life,” he said. “The sense of neighborhood is unique and very desirable, the friendliness and the institutions. It also embraces modernity, new businesses and new ideas coming to town. There is engagement. People are just involved in the community, and not as bystanders. People really participate.”
Participation is key for Columbus City Council President Zach Klein ’01, who admires the engagement of his constituents and a sense of commitment that goes in both directions. “Local government really is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “You can directly impact people’s lives, from public utilities all the way to community relations and civil rights.”
Klein was a pre-med student at Ohio State until his senior year, when, he said, “I had this desire to go outside medicine, to get involved in politics and elected office.” He switched his major to political science, a change in course that launched an impressive career in public service.
After law school, Klein clerked for two federal judges and then worked for Vice President Joe Biden, flying back and forth between Columbus and D.C. every week. He joined Columbus City Council in 2011 and became its president five years later when his predecessor in the post, Andrew Ginther, was elected mayor.
Klein is a huge believer in the synergies between the university and the city. “We rely on each other. Columbus works to retain graduating talent from Ohio State to feed the engine that drives the city. The university’s innovation and research directly benefit Columbus. We want new graduates to think of Columbus as home. We want them to think how they can make their dreams come true here.”
Ongoing engagement with the university lets him hang on to the student life that prepared him so well for a career in public life. “I’m nostalgic every time I step foot on campus,” he said. “I think about how much I love it and how important it was in shaping me.”
Indeed, the university shapes the students who graduate to become the community leaders who shape the city: This is the narrative of our love story, what uniquely attracts and fortifies Ohio State and Columbus, to each other and to the world.
“Looking at the next 100 years, I think in ways we can’t imagine, the university and the community will become even more integrated and more purposed,” Wexner said. “The success of the university and the success of the city will be the vital connection of the two, really working together.”