By William Porter, The Denver Post
Not too many years ago, and certainly within living memory of many of its graduates, the University of Denver was known as a school with a first-class hockey team and some distinguished alumni but not much else.
On Wednesday, DU places another feather in what is now a festooned hat: It hosts Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the first 2012 presidential debate in the campus’ Magness Arena, part of the gleaming Ritchie Center complex.
Daniel Ritchie, the center’s namesake, will have to feel a surge of pride.
“It’s nice to see, but really, the feeling of accomplishment is about ‘we,’ not ‘me,’ ” said Ritchie, who served as DU’s chancellor from 1989 to 2005, leaving a legacy that transformed the school.
The former chancellor is credited with laying the foundation for the school’s big TV moment, along with elevating it to a nationally respected institution that draws an international student body and top academics to a compact jewel box of a campus in south Denver.
“I think DU is at a level we never would have reached without Dan Ritchie leading the charge,” said Joy Burns, who owns the Burnsley Hotel and serves on DU’s board of trustees, which she chaired under Ritchie’s tenure as chancellor.
Ritchie certainly did not accomplish this alone. He had a hard-working staff, professors who bought into his vision, and a cohort of area citizens who dipped deep into their wallets after he challenged them for matching grants and other donations.
And he led by example.
Ritchie didn’t take a paycheck as chancellor. In persuading DU board members to participate in matching grants to the school, he donated his sprawling Grand River Ranch in Kremmling to underwrite the matches.
Since he announced the cattle ranch’s sale in 1994, and with it his personal gift of $15 million, it has brought in more than $50 million for DU.
“The ranch has held a very special place in my heart for the last two decades,” Ritchie said in 1998. “But I love the University of Denver more.”
Friends and colleagues — they often qualify as both — describe Ritchie as a classic Southern gentleman who retained a folksy charm, despite a career that found him in the hard-nosed corporate world.
Born in 1932 in China Grove, N.C., a small town in the central part of the Tar Heel State, Ritchie went to boarding school before graduating from Harvard University in 1956 with his B.A. and a master’s in business administration. (He fell in love with Colorado in 1953, during a summer visit.)
After a U.S. Army hitch, Ritchie made his fortune on Wall Street as a securities analyst. He came to Colorado in 1959 to run Columbia Savings and Loan. He later became a top executive with MCA-Universal, the entertainment giant, and then chief executive of Westinghouse Broadcasting.
Upon returning to Colorado in the 1980s, Ritchie took a seat on DU’s board. It needed a member with serious business acumen, for the school was in debt.
“He joined the board at a time when the university was not in a great position,” said Steve Edmonds, who was working at the school when Ritchie arrived and became director of the chancellor’s office. “I think that gave Dan time to get to know the place. By the time he was asked to become chancellor, he had gotten to know the institution.
“He wasn’t starting at square one, so he was ready to dig in his heels and get to work.”
Edmonds, now executive director of the Institute for Children’s Mental Disorders in Aurora, acknowledges a few growing pains.
“The business and academic worlds function differently,” he said. “There was a learning curve.”
Edmonds remembers how Ritchie went to each campus department, meeting with members for hours at a time, talking about what was going right and what needed improvement. This was tenured faculty, by nature resistant to change, and where altering course was akin to doing a U-turn with an ocean liner.
But Ritchie, who Burns said exacted a pledge of board support before taking the chancellor’s job, listened and learned, then acted.
“It was really a coming together of the faculty, the administration and the athletic department and deciding that we didn’t want to be a good school but a great school,” said Ritchie, who is now chairman and CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “It might take a few decades, but that’s the way we were going to go.”
Seeking outside input is part of Ritchie’s makeup, said Reginald Washington, chief medical officer of Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.
“When there’s an issue, he doesn’t hesitate to reach out and gather other people’s opinions before he makes his own,” Washington said.
One of the things Ritchie stressed at DU was a balanced annual budget.
“He would go out and raise money for a new building, so before the ground was broken, we’d either have the money in hand or pledged,” Burns said. “To me, he was somewhat of a genius to come up with that.”
“Too often, universities are not very well managed from a business point of view,” Ritchie said. “The difference of 10 percent in the bottom line over a period of time? You’re talking real money.”
A 2001 fundraising campaign topped its $200 million goal by $74 million. The legacy of construction from Ritchie’s tenure includes the $67 million Newman Center (named for Robert and Judi Newman, whom Ritchie asked to spearhead the fundraising) and the Ritchie Center, a $50 million complex housing DU’s 17 Division I sports programs, Magness Arena and the Coors Fitness Center.
Edmonds said Ritchie should also be credited for championing a uniform architectural vision for the additions.
“It’s a pretty, striking campus in an urban setting, and I’m sure that played a part in the (debate venue) selection,” he said.
One of Ritchie’s goals was for DU to look outward, nationally and internationally.
“It really required an intense cultural change, which took significant work,” Edmonds said. “We hadn’t grown up as a city like we have today, and the university was also kind of like that. We focused internally, not externally. We had to get people to look beyond the university walls, to learn how to be a player in the broader community: city and state, nationally and internationally.
“It was really a renaissance vision.”