‘Queen Carol’

Kristine Gill

University’s first female president ushers in millennium.

Carol Cartwright was riding an elevator in the Student Center when the little girl next to her turned to her father and asked, “Is that the grandma fish?”

It was.

Cartwright, the 10th president of the university and the first woman president of any Ohio university, had been depicted as a fish in a mural at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center. It didn’t bother her that the young girl had noticed the resemblance either.

“It of course pleases me, because I love being a grandmother,” Cartwright said.

The mural was painted at the newly built aquatic center at the rec during Cartwright’s time as president.

“I received a call one evening from staff at the rec center,” she said. “They said, ‘We want you to know we’ve painted a mural at the aquatic center.’ I said, ‘It’s 9 p.m. Why is this suddenly an issue?’ and they said, ‘Well it has your face on it.’”

The rec center staff wanted the president to approve the design before it was varnished, but she refused.

“The artist should be in charge of what the artist wants,” she told them. “I should not be interfering.”

And so the painting was varnished, and Cartwright ended up liking the final mural after all.

Each university president has a building named for him or her and a portrait painted by Elmer L. Novotny, but only Cartwright appears as a fish. It’s a fact that might attest to the type of president and person she was.

“She was very generous with students and very generous with her time,” said William Hildebrand, author of A Most Noble Enterprise: The story of Kent State University, 1910-2010.

Hildebrand described her in his book as “petite, precise, prepared, assured, with signature white hair, Irish blue eyes and concentrated energy.” He makes no mention of gills or scales.

Cartwright came to the university in 1991 at the age of 50 after she was nominated for Kent State’s search. She left her position as vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of human development at the University of California at Davis. She said it wasn’t difficult choosing to leave the Sunshine State for Tree City, Ohio.

“Anywhere the sun shines all the time people will tell you that they miss the weather,” she said. “But there’s a lot more to life than the weather.”

So Cartwright and her family picked up and moved to Ohio. Her tenure would get off to a bumpy start when in 1991 she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I had a good prognosis, and everything went very well,” she said. “I had surgery a week before Homecoming and did the full schedule of events, not because I was trying to prove anything, but because I felt good and I could do it. There was no point in sitting at home.”

And so Cartwright took part in the 1991 Homecoming parade, an event she was known to participate in fully each year, once riding a Harley-Davidson in the parade and once riding it into the football stadium to deliver the Homecoming game ball.

“If any of her male predecessors had tried such a stunt, it would have lacked the woman’s touch,” Hildebrand wrote. “The frisson that makes a moment memorable.”

And while Cartwright recovered quickly from her own medical situation, the university would soon be hit by another tragedy. In December of the same year, a maintenance worker and part-time student was found dead in the Kiva, shot through the back by a .38-caliber pistol.

There were no leads on the murder, and students were left without answers leading into winter break.

“It was certainly talked about when it happened,” Hildebrand said. “The interesting thing was it happened before Christmas break so there was a lull.”

But there was another shooting on Jan. 30, 1992, when students returned to campus. A man shot Sarah Smith, a student who had been walking out of White Hall. The girl was not killed and described a man who would later be identified as alumnus Mark Cunningham.

Cunningham was shot and killed by police on Feb. 11 of that year when he shot into several windows of an apartment complex near the Michael Schwartz Center. Kent police chased him from the scene and shot when Cunningham fired at them. Cunningham’s weapon was linked to the murder of the man in the Kiva and the shooting of the female student.

“I think it was very frightening for many people on campus,” Cartwright said. “It was very important for me to be the steady hand and the person who was helping people understand that you don’t need to be victimized by this environment. There are things you can do to keep yourself safe.”

Cartwright and her administration took time to send letters home to the families of each student telling them what was being done to keep students safe.

But aside from those early speed bumps, Hildebrand said the biggest challenges of the decade for the university were the economic factors.

“Cartwright learned with a jolt that money would be the leading concern of her tenure on her first day on the job, Mar. 16, 1991, the day the governor sent the legislature wrapped in a bloodstained butcher’s paper,” Hildebrand wrote. “Inside were the shambles of the higher education subsidy that had survived his cleaver.”

Cuts were made to staff and budgets across campus, but Cartwright combated more budget problems with fundraising efforts.

“The first ever major fundraising campaign for the university started when I was there,” she said. “There was literally nothing in the way of fundraising when I arrived. We did not only build the staff and the national foundation board, but we executed a campaign that came in significantly ahead of the goal. We exceeded it by $20 million or so. That created a great foundation for subsequent campaigns.”

Even budget woes would soon disappear from the radar as Kent State moved toward a new millennium.

“The university’s biggest success of the decade was moving forward,” Hildebrand said.

Cartwright said athletics flourished under Laing Kennedy and a number of new programs were added, as well as the division for student affairs under the Department of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs.

“There was a program to renovate all the residence halls, build new ones and modernize the dining facilities,” she said. “Student interests were changing. There was a huge change in expectations about technology in terms of what the students expected and what the university needed to do.”

Hildebrand wrote that students had called Cartwright “Queen Carol” after observing her elaborate homecoming festivities, but the name lost its negative connotation when she began meeting with students in open forums to assess their needs.

Also during the ‘90s, the campus-wide project to renovate old buildings and construct new ones continued. While she hadn’t planned the effort originally, Cartwright oversaw the completion of such buildings as the Student Recreation and Wellness center in 1999.

“I got to go in the cherry picker for topping off ceremony and place the last piece of steel,” she said.

Merrill, Lowry, Kent and Franklin Halls, the buildings that had stood tall since the beginning, were renovated according to the plan Michael Schwartz had set in motion.

Cartwright currently serves as president of Bowling Green State University where she will stay until her contract expires in 2011. She fully plans to retire after that.

As the university rounds its 100th year, it is led by a man for whom a building has yet to be named and a portrait by the late Novotny can never be done. President Lester Lefton’s chapter in Kent State’s history is still in progress.

So much has changed in the past 100 years that no president could ever name all of his students the way John McGilvrey had or make name for the university the way Glenn Olds and May 4 did. But black squirrels still roam campus, students still sled down the hills of front campus and paint the rock, and blue gills — the fish that unwittingly sealed the deal for a normal school in Kent — still swim the Cuyahoga.

Contact enterprise reporter Kristine Gill at [email protected].