George Herbst. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

George Herbst at his namesake, Herbst Overlook. Photograph by Judy Watson Tracy.

Setting the Capstone

Rollins Salutes VP and Architectural Arbiter George Herbst

By Lorrie Kyle Ramey ’70

When George Herbst came to Rollins in 1996 to become the College’s vice president for business and finance and treasurer, he did not foresee that his responsibility for the College’s physical plant and his passion for design would converge at the center of one the largest construction booms in Rollins’ history. In the 12 and a half years that concluded with his retirement from the vice presidency in July 2008, the College built, expanded, or renovated more than 30 facilities, renewing the face of the campus and garnering national recognition for the results.

The appearance of George Herbst in a crisply pressed white shirt, neatly knotted silk tie, and construction hard hat was a familiar sight on campus, but not all of his responsibilities were so visible. Among his other duties were oversight of the College’s budget and investments, human resources and risk management, campus security and environmental safety, and information technology infrastructure and services.

A catalogue of his accomplishments at Rollins would also include campus and comprehensive housing master plans and the first economic and community impact study in more than a decade. Not one to be tied to his desk, Herbst had a well deserved reputation for rolling up his sleeves and pitching in. During the parade of hurricanes that marched across Central Florida in 2004, he helped supervise parking at the College garage and then bivouacked with members of the campus community evacuated to the Cornell Campus Center and the Bush Science Center.

Though it was rumored that Herbst never saw a piece of real estate he didn’t like (during his tenure, the College acquired Sutton Place Apartments; the site of the Marshall and Vera Lea Rinker Building; properties on Fairbanks and Comstock Avenues that now house the Departments of Communication and Critical Media & Cultural Studies, career services, and administrative offices; apartments for graduate students in the Crummer School; and residential facilities for new and visiting faculty), he recounted there wasn’t a week that passed that his office didn’t receive a telephone call with an offer to sell property to the College.

Herbst was a master of making the most of the College’s assets. Practicing the arts of compromise and consensus building, he and College trustees negotiated the successful development of the College parking garage and SunTrust Plaza, reinvigorating the south end of Park Avenue and delivering important revenue to the College’s bottom line. This and other investments in strengthening the “town-gown” relationship between the City and the College produced such shared ventures as Lake Island Park Softball Complex, built on City land by the College for use by Rollins’ softball team and local youth; the Fairbanks-to-Holt Avenue streetscape of Park Avenue, financed by an interest-free loan from the College to the City; and the City-wide emergency notification system, Outreach, made possible by another interest-free loan from the College.

Understandably, Herbst also became a familiar figure in Winter Park. Both the City and the Chamber of Commerce recognized his expertise and tapped him for leadership. He served on numerous City boards and task forces and was elected Chamber chairman. In 2005, he was named Winter Park Citizen of the Year. At the same time, he was active in higher-education circles, reviewing accreditation for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which entailed site visits as far away as Mexico and Dubai, and serving as national program chair for the 2007 annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

Herbst, who defines his interests as far broader than finance or business, is grateful for the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a very special campus and enhance it.” Though his personal taste is clearly contemporary, his appreciation for architectural context is exceptional. (In 2004, he received the Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects’ Orlando Chapter, presented to a non-architect for contributions to design, planning, and appreciation of architecture’s cultural significance.) He was adamant about maintaining the Spanish Mediterranean character of the campus established by Rollins’ eighth president, Hamilton Holt, and devoted considerable effort to ensuring an accurate and sensitive restoration of the College’s oldest building, Pinehurst Cottage.

It is no surprise that the result earned two preservation honors for the College: a Preservation Award for Restoration/Rehabilitation from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and the Friends of Casa Feliz Award for Outstanding Preservation, which also recognized the first restoration of stonework on the Knowles Memorial Chapel. More important, the renovation won the approval and gratitude of the students who call Pinehurst Cottage home. In fact, the residents made Herbst an honorary member of the Pinehurst Organization, and that recognition meant more to Herbst than any number of plaques or citations.

The final years of Herbst’s tenure coincided with the College’s receipt of the extraordinary bequest of George Cornell ’35 ’85H, which totaled $105.5 million on final accounting. Combined with gifts from other donors and excellent investment performance (Rollins has ranked regularly in the top 25 percent of 700+ institutions monitored by NACUBO), the College’s endowment quadrupled in the dozen years since Herbst’s arrival and the institution enjoys a firm financial footing. (As Herbst is fond of saying, “Rollins is healthy, but not yet wealthy.”) In 2007, Moody’s Investors Service confirmed Herbst’s assessment of the College’s fiscal well-being, awarding the College an A1 rating, the highest of any independent college or university in Florida.

Describing Herbst’s contributions to the College, Barry Levis, professor of history and current vice president of the Arts & Sciences faculty, cited the inscription on architect Christopher Wren’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” A tangible reminder of that presence is Herbst Overlook, with its dramatic views of Lake Virginia. The site was a natural choice for Rollins’ 13th president, Rita Bornstein ’04H ’04HAL, to propose when asking Herbst for a contribution during the College’s comprehensive fundraising campaign. As Rollins’ current president, Lewis Duncan, noted, “George’s gift to Rollins captures his special appreciation for the nature of our campus—linking the lakefront with the life of the College and creating a special place for members of our community.”  In recognition of his service, President Bornstein presented Herbst the Rollins Decoration of Honor, President Duncan bestowed the Hamilton Holt Award, and the Board of Trustees elevated Herbst to emeritus status. Bornstein characterized him as “a model of ethical action, collaborative leadership, hard work, sensitivity to others, intelligent decision making, openness, and devotion to Rollins.” Duncan compared Herbst’s influence to Holt’s, adding that he “established a legacy of high standards, loyalty, and dedication to the College’s mission that would have made Hamilton Holt proud.”

“It was the perfect storm,” said Herbst, referring to the confluence of presidential and trustee leadership, the success of The Campaign For Rollins (which surpassed its $100-million fundraising goal by more than $60 million), and the generosity of George D. and Harriet W. ’35HAL ’90H Cornell that produced an environment where ideas could move from imagination to implementation. He confessed his affection for new projects and new challenges, and admitted, “Letting it go is like sending a child off to college.” Following an administrative sabbatical and oversight of special projects for President Duncan, Herbst looks forward to consulting in higher education, volunteering in the Greater Orlando community, building a(nother) new house, and welcoming a new puppy.

Asked what surprised him most about his years at Rollins, Herbst replied, “How much fun it was. I never expected to have such a good time.”