Getting It Done
Behind-the-Scenes Creativity Helps ODU ‘Stars’ to Shine Brighter
By Brendan O’Hallarn
“Find a need and fill it.” — Ruth Stafford Peale
American writer, editor, speaker and philanthropist Ruth Stafford Peale – she was the wife of “The Power of Positive Thinking” author Norman Vincent Peale – spent her 101 years practicing what she preached.
That same maxim about finding a need and filling it can also be applied to the three individuals featured in this article.
Old Dominion University has brilliant researchers in every college, accomplished teachers, talented performers. But without inventive people behind the scenes, finding needs and filling them, it would be far more difficult for ODU’s “stars” to shine.
Without Elwood “Woody” Robinson, a million jobs would go unfinished in the theatre arts department.
Without machinist Kevin Colvin, researchers in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology wouldn’t have the precisely rendered parts made of metal, wood and ceramic materials for their complex experiments.
And without Tom Hartlove, lab specialist in nuclear physics, the large, specialized equipment needed for experiments would be a lot tougher to construct.
Here’s to the people who make things work.
Makes Theater Magic
Viewed from the audience, theater is glamorous and dramatic, thought-provoking and romantic. The view from backstage is a little different.
But it’s no less enjoyable for Robinson, director of the University Theatre at Old Dominion University. “I do it because of the people,” said Robinson, who has been at ODU for 12 years.
“When a show is good, it’s just a great feeling. There’s a camaraderie, and esprit de corps.”
Oh, and about 2,000 things to do before the curtain rises.
At any time, you might find Robinson at thrift stores, buying props and costumes with the scant dollars in the ODU theater budget. Or he might spend his weekends painting risers, to create a completely different atmosphere for the cost of a coat of paint. Or – and this is one of Robinson’s special talents – he’ll dream up ways to make special effects with the stuff he has lying around backstage.
“Every show is a different challenge,” Robinson said. “You’re always doing things you’ve never done before.” One time, it was a bubble machine, fashioned out of an old record player turntable, for a staging of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Another time he simulated the burning of “Joan of Arc” with a projector and rotating Plexiglas.
The work Robinson does continually amazes Katherine Hammond, a lecturer in theatre arts.
“While he doesn’t formally teach courses, he teaches students the real-world skills of patience and perseverance,” Hammond said. “Woody teaches us all that learning and creativity takes diligence. And sometimes it takes 100 wrongs to find the right.
“Woody never gives up and never gives in to mediocrity. We treasure him as part of the theater team.”
Robinson has been in theater most of his life. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Stevens College in Columbia, Mo., one of 10 male students “scholarshipped” in to the women’s college to add a little variety and perform male parts in plays.
After school, Robinson got married and he and his wife joined the Peace Corps. They spent three years in the Solomon Islands, building their own hut to live in. When he arrived back in the United States, Robinson settled in the Hampton Roads area. After a few decades working for companies such as the Virginia Opera and Virginia Stage Company, he came to ODU. He’s felt at home ever since.
“The students get great opportunities here,” Robinson said. “One of the things, which is both good and bad, is that ODU doesn’t have a graduate program.” The bad part is that it’s difficult to attract and keep talented students and faculty, Robinson said. But the good part is that undergraduates here get far more hands-on experience, and better roles, than they’d get at a school that offers advanced degrees.
“Everything you see on stage, from the acting, to the costumes, to the props, is done by undergraduates,” Robinson said.
A small team of students helps him get shows stage-ready. However, like in all theater companies, when there’s a big job to do, it’s all hands on deck. A few years ago the theater company was doing a stage version of “Rashomon,” the Akira Kurosawa film. As part of the set, Robinson had to create a bamboo forest by painting bamboo leaves on a series of hanging screens. “I had a huge amount of painting to do. And the only time we had floor space was over the Christmas break. We had six or seven students come in over Christmas and help me do the work,” he said.
“That’s the best part of theater, and the best part of my job. Everybody helps build. Everybody helps paint.”
And the result is theater magic.
Is a Handyman in Nuclear Physics
How did Tom Hartlove prepare for his job as lab specialist in ODU’s nuclear physics lab? Not by doing physics.
Instead it was Hartlove’s experience “doing just about everything else” that appealed to the department when he sat down with seven faculty members, all Ph.D.s, for a job interview in early 2001. The job candidate had spent the past 30 years working in shipbuilding, on construction, as a mechanic and draftsman, and even on building precise replicas of the Cape Henry lighthouse. Most recently, prior to coming to ODU, Hartlove had been a planner-estimator for the engineering firm, Fluor Daniels.
“I’m happiest when I’m sitting at a workbench using my hands to make something,” said Hartlove, who has been at ODU for 8 ½ years.
Hartlove grew up in Virginia Beach, and never thought about attending a university, let alone working at one. He, his father and his two brothers were always taking things apart, and then putting them back together. In fact, both of Hartlove’s parents, and his grandparents, spent their lives working with their hands – as artists, machinists, watchmakers. “I feel that I inherited some of that from them. My dad helped me rebuild my first six-cylinder engine when I was 15,” he said.
Hartlove still does hands-on work today. Only now it’s with giant proton arrays and electron particle accelerators.
“Tom is essential to our research program. Simply put, he maintains our ability to do research and he saves us time by taking care of problems before we even know there are problems,” said Gail Dodge, chair of the physics department and herself a nuclear physicist. “Tom has always been the kind of person who jumps in to do whatever is needed, whether or not it’s his official job. This kind of person is invaluable because there are innumerable details, large and small, involved in running a productive research program.”
Currently, Hartlove is wrestling with how to construct a new, six-piece chamber detector – a device that will “catch” electrons and other particles traveling at almost the speed of light – allowing physicists to make calculations about the atomic properties of substances under particular conditions.
There will be a lot of working with his hands, but also a whole bunch of working over the telephone in the construction project, which will take until 2013, when the new detector is installed as part of an upgrade at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News.
One of Hartlove’s jobs has been to help create a large “clean room” in the new Physical Sciences Building, which is required for the construction of the delicate equipment. “See all that duct work up on the ceiling?” Hartlove said, pointing at the top of the two-story room. “That makes it impossible to install what we had originally planned on.”
At Hartlove’s suggestion, the research group had him shop around for the best deal on a freestanding clean room, which will be placed right in the middle of the large laboratory.
“In the long run, it will end up saving us a lot of time and money,” he said.
Although his background isn’t in science, Hartlove finds he has something in common with the ODU researchers who are his colleagues. “They’re great to work with. They really appreciate what it is I try to do for them. And in their work, they’re doing what I do – trying to solve problems, too.”
Is ‘Best-Kept Secret’ in Engineering
He’s an indispensable part of the team at the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. But were it not for persistence and a few breaks, Kevin Colvin wouldn’t be working at ODU at all.
Colvin has worked in the machine shop in Kaufman Hall since June 1999. He said he was a little daunted before he started his job, as he would be working with many people with advanced degrees. He had started working at a shipyard at age 18, and didn’t have any advanced education outside of his work apprenticeships.
“But when I showed up here, I looked around the shop and thought, ‘This is exactly what I do,’” Colvin said. “I’d been taking things apart and putting them back together since I was a kid. Minibikes, motorcycles, anything mechanical.”
When Colvin was hired, he filled one of two positions in the engineering machine shop that were funded by the College of Sciences. In exchange, machinists in the shop did work for the College of Sciences as well as engineering. Ten years later, there’s more than enough engineering work to fill his days. On any given day, you can find him in the shop, fashioning parts out of plastic, ceramic materials, stainless steel, titanium and other metals for various experiments by engineering faculty members.
Early on, though, it wasn’t clear Colvin was going to stay at ODU. A few times, it came down to the last few weeks before the money was found to keep his position open. Once, the president of a company he was working for – on an ODU-led project – wrote a letter to the university, urging that Colvin be kept on. This uncertainty about job security went on for two years.
Finally, Colvin was truly facing a layoff. His job was to be eliminated in just a few weeks. But a friend and colleague at the university got his lab coat caught in the lathe, breaking his arm in two places. Following surgery, the colleague wasn’t able to lift his arm high enough to do the work required on a machine shop mill, so ODU found another job for him on campus, and Colvin moved into the machine shop full time. He’s been there ever since.
Bernie Bohm, assistant dean of the Batten College, is one among many in the engineering college who are impressed by Colvin’s abilities. “Kevin Colvin is one of the best-kept secrets of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology,” Bohm said. “Engineers do things, make things and extend knowledge. Kevin takes the ideas of engineers and actually makes the objects, fulfills the ideas and creates the objects. There is no one better who can do that for our faculty and staff.”
It’s not always easy. Colvin shows a stack of construction orders, some meticulously rendered, others practically drawn on a napkin. “A professor will come in and hand me a sheet and say, ‘Here, make this.’ No measurements, no data, just a picture,” Colvin laughed. “It’s fun to try and figure out.”