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Campus updates in miniature / Diorama creator works to keep replica in pace with construction crews

Perhaps no one has had more of a hand on the South Dakota State University campus in the last 40-plus years than retired SDSU administrator Chuck Cecil of Brookings.

For Cecil, it’s been a literal hand. In miniature version, he has built every building, laid every sidewalk, paved every road and parking lot, and erected flag poles and towers. Anyone who has walked through the lobby of the Hilton M. Briggs Library in the past 30 years has seen his work—a diorama of the 60-square block campus on a 8- by 10-foot sheet of 1-inch plywood.

He made the original in 1975-76 and as the campus has grown and changed, Cecil has kept up.

His Christmas break project was to update the diorama.

The list of changes include the new president’s house and alumni center, a new plant science building and the community farming building, which are completed; the Wellness Center, Performing Arts Center and Frost Arena additions, which are underway; and the addition to the Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory, which is about to start.

While the cost of those projects are in the millions of dollars, Cecil volunteers his time as well as the cost of supplies—paint and balsa and bass wood.

“It keeps me out of the pool halls and it’s fun, kind of challenge,” says Cecil, 85, who became a newspaper publisher and book author after retiring as assistant to the president in 1987. The biggest current challenge is the Performing Arts Center. “If this PAC was easier, I would be done. There’s angles every 20 feet and an odd-shaped humped roof. I just can't replicate it," he said.

He said another major challenge is painting sidewalks, which are less than one-eighth inch wide.

Not considered an engineering marvel

SDSU’s Facilities and Services provides him building and landscape drawings to guide his work, but no ruler.

“I never use a ruler; just eyesight. Nothing is exacting,” he said.

But just because the diorama isn’t built to a prescribed scale doesn’t mean Cecil’s version of campus looks like a project of Happenchance Construction. While measures are approximate, the 1959 State journalism graduate uses his much smaller version the 165-foot high Campanile to guide his perspective and finds creative supplies to replicate unique features.

For example, buttons replicate the TV antennae at Pugsley. The top of a wooden thread spool represents the rounded portion of the Student Union’s southeast eating area. Small rocks serve as markers at Medal of Honor Park. Straws serve as chimneys on some buildings.

When coffee buddy and Brooking orthodontist David Meyers gave Cecil a 2018 calendar, he recognized a valuable resource when he saw it. A portion became the curved glass on the alumni center.

Motivated by childhood memory

Cecil attributes a childhood visit to the Adams Museum in Deadwood for the idea behind creating a diorama. The museum has a massive diorama of the Black Hills. More than 30 years later, after Keith Jensen raised funds to build the Tompkins Alumni Center, Jensen suggested there should be a model of campus in the Tompkins lobby.

Cecil, then director of development, volunteered to make the diorama. His family room became his workshop for the next six months.

For several years, the diorama was housed in Tompkins, but space became an issue and it was moved to the library lobby in about 1985. There it is seen not only by bookworms and computer geeks, but also by the thousands of students and parents who take campus tours each year.

Shawn Helmbolt, interim director of the Admissions Office, said, “We daily use the diorama in Briggs Library. All campus tours make a stop there to view the library and the diorama. It’s a neat feature of our campus tours for our visitors to get to see the full campus layout from a bird’s eye view perspective.”

Tyson Leite, a 2009 engineering grad who served as an Admissions Ambassadors tour guide in his college years, said, “I loved, loved, loved showing that (diorama). We always talk about how it’s a walking campus. I loved pointing out all the buildings, the proximity of the buildings.”

Chris Kotschevar, a current ambassador, said, “The diorama compliments the rest of tour by showing buildings that otherwise aren’t visible on the tour route as well as showing how updated campus is. Showing the layout of campus and how it is split in to quadrants by design helps prospective students see all that campus has to offer. It is a highlight of the tour for prospective students and families, and is a unique aspect to SDSU’s campus.”

Impressed by campus’s development

Cecil confesses that his patience for detail isn’t what it once was and says he may have to delegate son Matt, the family carpenter as well as Mankato State arts and humanities dean, to do the next update. But he adds, “I enjoy it and I think it adds some value to visitors. When I look at it, I’m amazed.

“This area where I’m sitting (the east side of campus) was just fields when I was a student.”

Now, in general, the east side of campus is athletics (north end) and residence halls. The west side of campus is agriculture (north end) and academic buildings. The intersecting perpendicular roads that characterized campus in Cecil’s student days are virtually gone.

That was part of Briggs’ desire to make State a walking campus and that focus has continued in succeeding presidents, Cecil said.

Today, the 424-acre campus boosts of 192 buildings, 4 miles of streets, 26 miles of sidewalks and 80 acres of parking lots. To put a couple of those numbers in perspective, in theory, a full marathon could be staged on campus and runners wouldn’t tread the same concrete twice. The parking lots represent space for nearly 80 football fields.

“Credit to Facilities and Services people. Dean Kattelmann (associate vice president of Facilities and Services) and his crew keep this all buzzing,” Cecil said.

Cecil’s buzzing is done at home with his miter saw. Drawing of patterns, painting and gluing is done in an empty meeting room on the library’s second floor. He expects to complete updates by mid-January and a Facilities and Service crew will carry the diorama back to the library lobby, where visitors can use a typewritten index to identify buildings.

“If I was 40 years younger, I would go into the diorama business with a 3-D printer, LED lights and sound recordings,” Cecil dreamed.