Lou Heldman is retiring from Wichita State University in June, but he’s leaving you a comfy place to sit.
He would like you to use those colorful chairs – around four dozen scattered throughout campus – to relax, move to a shady spot, linger on campus, talk and laugh with each other – from a safe distance for now. Perhaps some innovation comes from that time together.
If nothing else, he hopes those moments stick with you.
“I always felt we had a gorgeous campus, but very few comfortable places to sit,” said Heldman, special advisor to the president. “It gives me great pleasure to see groups of students sitting in those chairs. Anything we can do to add to the number of happy times people have outdoors on this campus, the more loyal they’ll be as alumni.”
The chairs, as well as a few tables and benches, are located throughout campus and will return in the fall. Four yellow rocking chairs recently appeared at Morrison Hall so Heldman, who provides for the chairs through a gift to the WSU Foundation, could enjoy them before retiring after 13 years at the university.
“He would always say, ‘It’s a beautiful campus,’ and he loved to see the landscaping and talk with everyone,” said Shelly Coleman-Martins, associate vice president of Strategic Communications.
But chronic pain prevented Lou from getting comfortable in a chair that didn’t support his back.
“He had a problem. He had a way to solve it. He became his own fund-raising source,” Coleman-Martins said. “He pulled a vision together.”
Heldman, 71, came to Wichita State in 2007, a time when the university’s vision was expanding. He fit in with a group, most prominently former president John Bardo and current president Jay Golden, whose goals for Wichita State and the community involved thinking and acting boldly.
special advisor to the president
Heldman came to Wichita State to teach in the Elliott School of Communication after working as president and publisher at The Wichita Eagle. He also served as interim director of the Elliott School and the Center for Entrepreneurship before taking the job as vice president for Strategic Communications from 2014 to 2020.
“One of the things that interests me so much about Wichita State is how its success is so intertwined with the success of the community and vice versa,” he said. “What each seems to lack was confidence and a willingness to take risks. That’s because both the university and the community have too often listened to the most negative voices.”
Heldman saw Wichita State’s 330-acre campus as a canvas to display confidence, take risks and do fun things. He loved working with students in Morrison Hall and as a teacher in the Elliott School and the Cohen Honors College.
“Universities are these remarkable machines for changing lives and improving society,” he said. “Everybody who has a chance to work for a university is awfully fortunate.”
He joined the late president Bardo’s executive team two years into the planning of the Innovation Campus. He helped tell that story as a fierce advocate for the 120-acre research park in ways ranging from videos, stories and speeches to a nine-year quest to paint the WuShock logo on the campus water tower nearby.
He calls Bardo’s description of the Innovation Campus ambition – “Envision being part of a university where innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and technology are making the future,” — as a guide during his time at WSU.
“Bardo was trying to accomplish some very big things,” Heldman said. “He was so smart. It was mostly a matter of asking him questions hour after hour until I understood the vision and then could begin communicating it.”
Heldman’s ideas and sense of whimsy will linger on campus for many years, often the product of him interjecting, “I always thought it would be cool if . . .” during a meeting.
“He just sees wonder everywhere,” Coleman-Martins said. “He especially felt that in the Innovation Campus.”
At the Elliott School, Heldman raised money to change a photography darkroom into a flexible-space classroom with movable chairs, whiteboard paints and color.
“It was the first real space in the building that was casual and comfortable,” said Dr. Jeffrey Jarman, director of the Elliott School.
Heldman asked placemaking coordinator Kristin Beal to design the Wu Signal, a play on the Bat Signal, which debuted at WSU ShiftSpace in February. Last winter, he purchased Shocker blankets for everyone in Strategic Communications to ward off the cold in Morrison Hall. One of his goals remains to add a light sculpture to the campus.
“I know I was born blessed by being curious and enthusiastic,” he said. “Every day at Wichita State, I found something to be curious and enthusiastic about.”
Heldman said he plans to remain in Wichita. He is married to Terry and has adult children, Nick and Diana. He plans to travel, garden, and take art and history classes.
“It’s not headline news when a 71-year-old retires,” he said. “I want to do nothing for 60-90 days and see how relaxed I can get.”