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By Debbie Goetz and Allison Miehl
When he’s not working, Thad Seymour — vice provost of UCF downtown — keeps busy with his wife doing yoga, raising canine companions, traveling and more. We sat with him at UCF’s Center for Emerging Media, surrounded by construction crews, where he gave us some insight on how the downtown campus will change Central Florida and reflected on his “crooked” career path.
We’re interested to know how you came into the position of vice provost. You were about to retire and then were helping create UCF’s five- and 20-year strategic plan. How did you jump from that to this position you have now, which is such a huge commitment?
A moment of weakness. [Laughs] No, I had retired from Lake Nona, where I … had a wonderful time building an amazing place. … I was invited by the provost [Dale Whittaker] to help work on the strategic plan. … I’d known UCF, and worked with UCF, but being inside and really understanding where it had come from and, more importantly, what the possibilities were going forward, it was just sort of eye opening.
Last spring, as the approval for the downtown campus worked its way through Tallahassee … the leadership at the university realized, “We need to build an ongoing team to bring this to life.” And Dale Whittaker, the provost, asked me … He’s a very persuasive guy, and the opportunity to be part of something that I think really will be game-changing for Orlando [was] too much to pass up.
What are you most excited to see happen at this downtown campus?
I can’t wait for the day, late in the summer of 2019, where the first students are here, trying to find their class, or meeting their professor for the first time … walking into this sparkling new building and immediately forgetting it’s a brand new building and being immersed in high-quality educational experiences.
Do you see UCF being here as having an impact on the students who are growing up in Parramore right now who may have not thought about college?
Yeah. You know, one of the early indicators of a student going to college is, are they exposed to it? And so, so many students in so many places in the country just have never thought of themselves on a college campus. And the fact that a kindergartener could look out their window or a third-grader could walk across a street to an event on a college campus is — that, along with whole other support systems, will open the eyes for students and have them start to imagine themselves as college students.
It’s going to be huge for this area.
We talk a lot at UCF about the whole idea of lifting lives and livelihoods … and I think it’s exactly right. You’re changing the human experience of a young person by getting them as deep into the education system as possible. And by doing that, you’re changing the trajectory of their livelihood — for themselves and their families.
This has been so long in planning. How do you feel now that the ground is broken and it’s actually happening?
It has been a long time planning. But it really is just the beginning, not the end … It’s really satisfying to see piles of dirt out there and heavy equipment. We’re always trying to think beyond 2019. If we do this right, which we will, this is one of those undertakings that, including the Creative Village, I think really is transformative for downtown.
Do you have an end goal of what you want to accomplish as a vice provost that you want to see happen here, where you’ll be able to look at it and say, “Okay, I’ve fulfilled my career, I’ve done what I want to do”?
And really retire? [Laughs] … I think we all, everyone involved in this, shares first the belief that this is the beginning — the right and important thing to do for the university and for Orlando. But the measure is going to be in the students we produce, and what they go on to do, and how they change their lives and help improve the region. … But just getting it open and getting campus full of students is going to be, for all of us, the most satisfying thing.
[In] a commencement speech at Trinity Prep … I urged them to celebrate the crooked path, meaning don’t try to find a linear career path for yourself. … It’s not going to happen. But don’t fight it. Enjoy it. It’s a crooked path, and I’ve had the great fortune of doing wacky things — from being a firefighter to a coach to a software engineer to … heading up a campus. Each one was more fun than the last.
When you told your wife, “Oh yeah, I’m not going to retire after all,” how was that?
[Laughing] Such a long conversation. We both had figured I wasn’t going to turn off completely. But this turned into a little bit more. But we’re having fun doing it, and she’s involved in a million things.
A couple things we’ve got a real passion for. One is, we raise canine companion puppies. We’re on our fourth. The first one flunked out. And then our second one got assigned. Our third one is in advanced training. And then we just got a puppy about two months ago.
And then, she and I both are very involved in Shepherd’s Hope … she’s chairing the gala this year.
We’ve been involved, she in particular, with … mission trips to the Dominican Republic. It’s been a cool process over the 15 years where we started with safe water, filtered water, and then started building houses and doing medical trips and then, back to education … Now some of the very best students from these little villages have come here and gone to high school throughout five or six different high schools in Central Florida. A couple of them have gone on to college, and so, next year, we’re going to be hosting — for the next two years — a student who’s going to be going to Seminole State right near us and then on to UCF.
So your wife hasn’t been sitting at home, lonely, wishing you were there.
Yeah, it’s not in her DNA.
Where did you two meet?
We met in college. I was at Dartmouth, and she was at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. She was a freshman and I was a junior when we met. And then we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, when I was in graduate school, and we ended up getting married there 36 years ago.
You have three kids?
Three kids, all grown. The oldest works in health economics for GE Healthcare in Chicago. Our middle son is in New York City doing digital media stuff. …We watched the Super Bowl, and he goes, “Watch for this one, this one, this one, I worked on these,” so he does some fun work. Our daughter Maddie graduated from college two years ago. She lives in Milwaukee and is a product manager for a cosmetics company. They’re great kids. None married, no grandkids yet. Someday.
It’s great that you and your wife are so active when you could retire.
It’s partly the community and partly how we were both raised.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Hampshire and Indiana. I went to high school in Indiana and then went back to New Hampshire for college.
What do you and your wife do for fun?
We like to travel a lot. Katie’s the oldest of seven. So whenever we can, we squeeze in a long weekend. My parents are here, so we spend a fair amount of time with them. She has family in Virginia Beach, and I have family in New York City … and then Chicago’s kind of a second home. …. We do body pump class at 5:30 in the morning two days a week and yoga on the opposite days. Try to keep the years away from us as long as we can.
When you were growing up, your dad was a college professor then dean. He went on to be Rollins president. What was that like?
I kind of grew up on college campuses. That’s why my crooked path took me first to teaching high school and coaching and then to graduate school and then getting, later, my PhD and saying, “You know, maybe I don’t want to live on a college campus.” And I ended up going to business school and then into the business world for 30 years. And now I’ve gone back full circle to being on a college campus.
Is there any advice that stands out that your dad gave you?
He was never a big advice giver, which I think was good, especially for teenage boys. But he was a great role model. Both my folks were. They committed their lives, and they did it as a team, to education. I think they taught all of us to do the right thing, and the same things they were trying to teach young people professionally. We learned it by watching what they did, rather than by them telling us what to do.