‘Mark This Date’

by   |  02.18.11  |  Ceremony, Construction, Fundraising

You’d be hard-pressed to find many relics of Viking heritage in West Texas, but for the next few days, one sits atop the newest building at Abilene Christian University.

In a ceremony born from ancient Scandinavians’ love for evergreen trees and carried through the generations to America by the immigrant ironworkers who helped build New York’s tallest skyscrapers, ACU and its contractor celebrated Friday the installation of the top-most piece of steel on a sprawling new wellness center.

“Mark this date,” said Dr. Jean-Noel Thompson, vice president and dean of Student Life. “Feb. 18, 2011, is one to remember. Today marks an important milestone in the life of the Royce and Pam Money Student Recreation and Wellness Center.”

Crews lifted the tree into place using the massive crane that has dominated the Abilene skyline for months — and which has captivated campus residents as it has lifted beam after beam of steel into place on the $21 million facility — as members of the ACU community, ranging from students to members of the Board of Trustees, applauded during what is known in the construction industry as a “topping-out” ceremony.

The topping-out beam itself was visible from the parking lot in front of the construction site, its purple hue standing out from its neighbors at the top of the structure’s east face. The beam spent nearly a week on the campus mall earlier this month, allowing hundreds of students, faculty and staff to sign their names before crews hoisted it to its place 35 feet above what will soon be a new leisure pool in the facility. The signatures, however, will soon be invisible; the beam is set to be covered with fireproofing material and buried within the walls of the wellness center, which is scheduled to open in late August or early September.

Phil Boone, vice president of Advancement, introduces four members of ACU's Board of Trustees, all of them among the lead donors to to the wellness center (l to r): Dale Brown, Billy Busch, Rick Wessell and April Anthony. Dr. Jean-Noel Thompson, vice president and dean of Student Life, and Students' Association president Samuel Palomares look on.

The brief ceremony also recognized some of the facility’s lead donors to date: April Anthony, Dale Brown, Billy Bush and Rick Wessell, members of the Board of Trustees who collectively have given more than $8 million to the project.

“We’re inching closer to going over the $15 million mark” in funds raised for the facility, said Phil Boone, vice president of Advancement. “Our next topping out ceremony will come when we go over full funding.”

The 113,000-square-foot expansion of the Gibson Health and Physical Education Center has been enormously complex, said Brian Cook, vice president and Texas division manager for HOAR Construction, the contractor for the project. Cook cited as an example the pouring of a concrete base above the new pool at the top of the building, 35 feet above ground.

Thus far, crews have expended more than 100,000 man-hours in constructing the facility, Cook said.

“We have had no major incidents or injuries,” he said, “and that’s an amazing success so far.”

The evergreen tree — which Thompson said he sees as a symbol of “the life God gives us,” as well as the university’s mission to “nourish mind, body and soul” through the wellness center — ultimately will be planted on campus, leading Thompson to address ACU’s grounds crews.

“Do all you can to keep the tree alive,” he joked, “or it will kill my analogy.”

Photos by Gary Rhodes.