By Stephen Lindsley
To say that The Keeter Center at College of the Ozarks is a stunning, multi-functional dining, lodging and meeting center is not an understatement, but really just the tip of a much larger iceberg.
In this case the iceberg is the college itself, of which The Keeter Center is perhaps the most visible showcase.
A UNIQUE INSTITUTION
This year the College of the Ozarks (C of O) celebrates the centennial of its founding in 1906, when it was known as the School of the Ozarks. The Junior College began in 1956 and the full four-year program started in 1965. The school occupies a 1,000-acre campus located just south of Branson, and just north of Hollister in Point Lookout, Missouri. Lake Taneycomo, which looks more like a river here, winds lazily past the campus.
The College of the Ozarks espouses a five-fold mission focusing on Academic, Vocational, Spiritual, Patriotic and Cultural Growth designed to provide its students with worthwhile goals to enhance their college experiences.
Over the years the school has received wide recognition and numerous accolades from several magazines and college ranking lists. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1973 dubbing the college “Hard Work U.” This nickname stuck and evolved into a meaningful motto for College of the Ozarks’ unique work-study program, as well as the school itself.
Students attending the college pay no tuition, but instead work at one of more than 80 workstations throughout the college to help defray the cost of their education. Numerous campus industries benefit from the student labor, which includes at least 15 hours of work a week and two 40-hour weeks a year, generally scheduled during times when classes are not in session.
Many new construction projects on campus are built with the help of students, a fact that leads to pride of ownership and serves to cement alumni involvement as well. When visiting the school later in life, rather than pointing out to their kids where they went to classes or what dorm in which they lived, alumni are more likely to say, “I helped build that building.” This devotion and sense of community continually adds to the College of the Ozarks’ uniqueness.
Entry into the school is highly competitive. To qualify, prospective freshmen must demonstrate a genuine need and only one in every 15 applicants receives a letter of acceptance. Although many come from the Ozark Mountain Region, students have arrived from every state and several foreign countries. Served by 80 full-time faculty members and 190 staffers in total, some 1,400 students attend the College of the Ozarks every year. There are more than 35 academic departments offering degree programs such as agriculture, nursing, criminal justice, speech communication and hotel and restaurant management.
As students progress through their experience at the College of the Ozarks they often find a work situation that matches their vocational interest, giving them valuable hands-on work experience that is cherished by potential employers. The campus is like a city unto itself, with its own fire department, hospital, radio station and day care center. Student workers fill every function from power plant staff to campus landscaping and security.
GET YOUR FRUITCAKE HERE
Agriculture plays a huge role in campus life. The Edwards Mill on campus is powered by a 12-foot wooden water wheel driven by water diverted from nearby Lake Honor. Whole grain meal and flour are ground by student workers, and these products are available for sale on campus and at The Keeter Center. Located upstairs in the mill there is a weaving center where students create rugs, placemats and other items on traditional looms. On the lower level, students create unique hand-woven baskets.
Of all the agricultural and craft products made at the college, fruitcakes are perhaps the most famous. More than 40,000 cakes are baked on campus each year. In addition, apple butter and a selection of jellies – 22 varieties, to be exact – are canned and made available. Both the mill and the fruitcake and jelly kitchen offer their products for sale to visitors. Other items produced and offered in the store include stained glass, pottery and beef jerky.
Also on campus, east of the Edwards Mill, are the C of O Greenhouses, which today contain more than 7,000 plants in a collection that grew from a substantial donation by a former student. Orchids and other houseplants are available for sale, and the greenhouse also provides orchids for popular Branson entertainer Shoji Tabuchi.
As if that were not enough, a unique museum on campus documents the history of the Ozark region. Nicknamed the “Smithsonian of the Ozarks,” the Ralph Foster Museum is home to a wide range of historical and cultural artifacts – many that were originally part of Foster’s personal collection. One popular attraction is the original Beverly Hillbillies vehicle featured in the show’s opening sequence.
FACILITY AS AMBASSADOR
The Keeter Center is a fitting showpiece for the College of the Ozarks, not just because of its rustic beauty and contemporary amenities, but because it embodies and furthers the goals of the entire institution.
After the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis a group of physicians had the former State of Maine building dismantled and re-constructed on the bluff now known as Point Lookout. For several years it was used as a hunting and fishing lodge. In 1915 a fire destroyed the main building of the School of the Ozarks, which at that time was located nearby in Forsyth, Missouri. When the hunting lodge was put up for sale, it was purchased by the school. It was then relocated to its current location and
became the school’s central facility until 1930, when it too was destroyed by fire.
The new Keeter Center opened in September 2004. The design closely replicates the original State of Maine building, and more than 250 students participated in its construction. The 97,000-square-foot facility boasts a three-story atrium lobby with huge wooden columns and beams, a 40-foot stone fireplace and an elevator decorated with hammered copper
featuring a cable-free hydraulic lift system.
Today more than 195 students work at The Keeter Center, fulfilling such roles as desk staff, bellhops, housekeepers, kitchen and wait staff, and many more. The 275-seat Dobyns Dining Room is central to the main level, and features a large embossed copper ceiling that is echoed in the elevator. The dining room is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, and offers a fabulous brunch on Sundays.
WHERE CHARACTER IS JOB ONE
Twice a year – in the spring and again in the fall – The Keeter Center for Character Education, led by executive director Sue Head, hosts the Community Convocation Series. While the fall gathering is a community-wide event, the Spring Convocation is a two-day forum geared toward the College community and visiting colleges, allowing for small group discussions.
Speakers at the Convocation series have included many esteemed world leaders such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In addition to the Convocation Series, the College sponsors Camp Lookout, a summer camp for underprivileged kids. The camp is held for 10 consecutive weeks during the summer and is staffed by C of O students, fulfilling their work/study requirements.
A very important program at the school is the Character Camp held at the beginning of each semester. “If we could package this program and market it, we would really do well,” says Head. “It’s an intense week of orientation, work and play in small ‘family’ groups which helps new students understand the ethos of the college.”
Because students are graded on their work as well as their studies, attitude, time management skills, and even good grooming habits become important issues. In the end, students find that through the Character Camp they have established friendships and fostered community that will serve them well throughout their college experience and beyond.
Now, though, the character education programs extend far beyond the college campus. The Keeter Center and the Taney County public schools have joined in a community-wide character initiative called First PLACE! To no one’s surprise the initiative already has experienced positive results.
“The way this program has been embraced by the community is nothing short of amazing,” says Head. “The focus has been on being intentional about teaching values at home and at school, and we have already heard about some encouraging results in the schools and the community at large.” In fact, the program has been so successful it is now serving as a model for a similar initiative in a Northwest Missouri county.
Accommodations at The Keeter Center are nothing short of luxurious. Each room features a Kingsdown Imperial mattress (not your average hotel bed), feather pillows, double vanities in the bathroom, free Internet access, refrigerator and microwave, and French doors that lead to an oversized balcony with a view of the campus and Ozark hills beyond.
Service is friendly and efficient. Little details such as chocolate chip cookies, pastries and confections created in-house emphasize the elegant surroundings. The style is log-cabin-lodge rustic but by no means is anyone roughing it here.
Eight loft suites include a king-sized bed, separate sitting area, and a bathroom with a jetted tub and separate shower. Plush bathrobes are a welcome added touch. The five skyline view suites include a living area with kitchenette and sleeper sofa. A private bedroom includes two queen beds and separate bathroom entrance. In addition, there are two presidential suites with king beds in both the master and the second bedroom, plus a private living area with sleeper sofa. Behind The Keeter Center is the Good Center, offering more standard hotel-style rooms, but with the same charming decorative touches, to-die-for mattresses and feather pillows.
The Royal Oak Auditorium, which seats 350 in a state-of-the-art theater-style setting, is the largest meeting space, but by no means the only one. The Silver Dollar City Parlor echoes the main atrium with a high, sloped ceiling and doors that lead to an extended veranda beyond. This space offers many options. It can accommodate a 500-person reception, seat 280 for a banquet-style meal, and seat 300 in a theater-style setting or 150 in a classroom setting. In addition, the veranda accommodates 150 for a banquet or 300 for a stand-up reception.
The large U.S. Bank Foyer, adjacent to the Royal Oak Auditorium, also offers a large reception area for up to 500 guests. Down the hall the smaller Gallery space will handle a reception of up to 150 or a banquet for 60. In addition, there are three meeting rooms, the Forsyth Room, the Clark Room and the Good Room, each approximately 650 square feet, that can be configured for a banquet with up to 30 guests, a reception for 60, theater seating for 35 or a classroom setting for 27 people. Separate from but adjacent to the main W. R. Dobyns Dining Room are two smaller private dining rooms. The intimate Presidential Dining Room holds up to 28, while the other private dining room seats 60 people.
The Keeter Center is large enough to handle meetings of many sizes and styles, all contained within the charming lodge structure. This means no marathon treks down long carpeted hallways to get from room to meeting, or vice versa. The dining areas are central to the entire facility, and the young student staff is eager to please.
Several meeting packages are available depending on the meeting or event you have in mind. Electronic amenities such as overhead projectors, DVD/VCR/TV and convenient electrical and Internet connectivity are all available.
The Keeter Center and the College of the Ozarks are located 45 minutes from the Springfield Branson Regional Airport, and a short drive from the Arkansas border. The Keeter Center is literally minutes away from all the entertainment options that Branson has to offer. Did I mention the Kingsdown Imperial mattresses? There is no better value at any resort or meeting center than a good night’s sleep. MM&E
(Stephen Lindsley is a contributor from St. Louis, MO.)