Eleven years ago, architect Matt Cortez walked into an interview in Topeka feeling prepared. He did not expect Eric King, then director of facilities for the Kansas Board of Regents, to shake that confidence.
King asked Cortez, then 27, if a young architect was experienced enough to handle the responsibilities of Wichita State University's on-call architect.
“He basically hit me in the eyes with that question,” Cortez said. “He made me realize that I have got to make sure I cover all my bases every single day and every single minute with every client. I've taken that mantra and it has helped me and propelled me forward.”
King, who led Wichita State's facilities planning since 2014, is retiring this week after starting in public education at Pittsburg State University in 1979 and working at the University of Kansas, Fort Hays State University and the Kansas Board of Regents.
His legacy contains landmark items such as the expansion of Wichita State's east side of campus. It also contains small moments such as the Friday morning meetings that shaped that campus expansion, tying fly-fishing lures in his office over lunch and testing Cortez before GLMV Architecture earned the job.
“He made me a better architect,” said Cortez, now senior vice president at GLMV.
King, 68, spent a career making campuses and people better around the state's universities. He emphasizes his projects involved help from many people, especially since he took a leading role in converting 120 acres on the east side of Wichita State's campus into a growing mix of academic, public-private partnerships, housing and retail buildings.
“I've got great, great people here at the facilities planning office, great consultants, great contractors,” he said. “It's been a great team effort.”
King worked as director of facilities for the Board of Regents from 1997-2014, when Wichita State offered him a chance to shape 120 acres – formerly Braeburn Golf Course – into a new direction for the university, community and region. He came to Wichita State in 2014 as director of facilities planning and became vice president for facilities in 2016.
“I was looking for some new challenges,” he said. “I felt like I needed to go ahead and retire or find something that would excite me and challenge me again. This really seemed like a great opportunity. The Innovation Campus was just being talked about and it's kind of a campus architect's dream to take a bare piece of land, 120 acres, and develop it.”
Four years later, Wichita State's campus expansion is growing faster than King imagined. The job started with infrastructure such as a sewer lines and electric lines and continued with environmental surveys and archaeological digs. He credits the City of Wichita with help on street and infrastructure upgrades.
Design guidelines and covenants require a look and feel that mesh with the older parts of campus – using a consistent style of brick, for example – with metal and glass for a sleek, modern look.
“It's been a great process,” King said. “I've had a great career and I've enjoyed every place I've worked. I can think of projects on each campus I've worked on that were great. I have to admit, that the scale of this and the speed of this - I don't know that I've had the same collaboration and feeling of teamwork that I've had on this. I've probably enjoyed that more than anything.”
In recent weeks, Wichita State announced deals for a hotel and a restaurant, adding to the existing buildings and plans for a YMCA and a new home for the W. Frank Barton School of Business.
“He's very thoughtful on how we go through these processes and the university has benefited from him being here to get the Innovation Campus off to a good start,” said Emily Patterson, director of facilities planning at Wichita State. “That was an interesting job for him as an architect to be given a blank slate and be able to put your mark on it. I know that's what drew him here, the opportunity to be able to leave his signature so strongly on campus.”
King regards the walkway (dubbed the East Mall Walk) that carries pedestrians from the Experiential Engineering Building on 17th Street through the campus toward Braeburn Square as the defining characteristic of the expansion. Patterson said King considered the walkway important enough to rearrange budget numbers to include it early in the project.
“If we didn't do it from the beginning, I don't know where the money would have come from,” Patterson said. “We wanted that to be a unifying feature of the new buildings.”
It is aesthetic. It is also functional because it allows space for emergency vehicles to service the buildings and utilities are buried underneath the walkway.
“We wanted to create some really nice spaces for students and people on campus,” King said. “We also needed it to try to organize things.”
Organizing the campus expansion started with Friday morning meetings that are remembered fondly by Cortez, both for their collaborative tone among the four or five attendees and their productivity.
“Being straight-forward, that's his expectation,” Cortez said. “You typically wouldn't have a relationship where you can easily go into his office and discuss projects on a daily basis. Not all clients are like that. He makes sure to make time.”
The meetings in King's second-floor Morrison Hall office headed off problems, such as directing water displaced by parking lots into ponds, and set the direction for the next move.
“You've probably been to meetings where you go in there thinking ‘Oh boy, I wish I didn't have to sit in on this,'” King said. “It's never like that. It's always positive, it's ‘How do we make it work.'”
While he directed the campus expansion, King prepared for retirement by building a home in Manhattan. His daughter lives in Junction City and his son in Topeka, so Manhattan offers proximity to them and his eight grand-children. He returns to Manhattan – the better to use his Kansas State University football season tickets – after graduating from Kansas State in 1977.
King, from Winfield, attended Wichita State for one semester before transferring to Cowley College to start his architectural studies. He spent three years (1968-71) in the Marine Corps, rising to the rank of sergeant.
King's office is empty this week as he prepares for retirement. The fly-fishing lures he worked on during lunch to escape e-mail and phones are at his new home. Retirement will give him the time to pursue that hobby – he fishes Kansas ponds, the Guadalupe River in Texas, the Driftless Area in Wisconsin and Montana's Blackfoot River.
“It's my favorite past-time,” he said. “Just a couple casting lessons from (a friend) and I was immediately hooked. I pretty much take a fly-rod anywhere I travel."
Whether it's planning sewer lines to serve 120 acres or delicately tying lures to fool fish, Cortez sees a focus and purpose that makes King a good partner and builder.
“I've seen his finished lures and it's pretty amazing,” Cortez said. “In fishing, you've got to have patience. He has the patience. He knows what his end goal is. At the end of the day, he's got an accomplishment to be proud of.”