Building a legacy

Robert Wortmann and his wife, Mary

Robert Wortmann and his wife, Mary

Chairman Robert Wortmann retires from College's Board of Trustees

When Robert E. Wortmann '60 arrived at Roanoke College as a freshman, he already knew he would pursue a career in construction. But he had no idea that one of his crowning accomplishments would involve building a legacy at the College he cherished.

In October, Wortmann ended 22 years of service on Roanoke's Board of Trustees, including eight as chairman, leaving his unmistakable mark on the entire campus.

"Board members are supposed to help with time, talent and treasure," President Michael Maxey says. "Bob has really been a model of helping in all three of those areas."

Under Wortmann's chairmanship, enrollment saw steady growth, the endowment increased, new academic programs were added and the College became one of fewer than 300 universities nationwide with a chapter of the elite Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, a recognition of excellence in liberal arts and sciences.

As the size of the student body at the College grew, it outpaced the availability of classroom facilities and on-campus housing. "We really wanted to make the campus a residential campus and get the students back so that everybody can interact with one another," says Trustee Nancy Mulheren '72.

"Under Bob, we knew we were sorely in need of new dormitories, new athletic facilities, new classrooms," Trustee Donald Kerr '60 says. "Our goal was to have 75 percent of the students living on campus."

Wortmann led the charge as the College added 687 residence hall beds on campus and renovated several historic academic buildings, including Lucas Hall, its first LEED-certified project. Roanoke also dedicated the 1,400-seat Kerr Stadium and completed a four-lane boulevard to welcome visitors to campus.

His 'first love'

Wortmann landed at Roanoke College in 1956 without ever having visited the area. A Brooklyn, N.Y. native, he had lived most of his life in New Jersey but the small southern college appealed to him. "I immediately felt settled," he recalls. "The campus spoke to me, and I liked the strong Lutheran ties."

Wortmann continued his education at the University of Miami, where he earned an engineering degree, but says, "This is my first love - Roanoke."

While still in college, Wortmann began working summers at VRH Construction, a company he founded with his brother Victor and cousin Herbert. Over the years, the firm grew exponentially, specializing in building terminals at airports such as La Guardia, John F. Kennedy International and Newark. VRH's largest project to date - the American Airlines terminal at JFK - weighed in at more than a billion dollars.

"His firm is a major, major building contractor in the New York/New Jersey area," says John Turbyfill '53, who preceded Wortmann as board chairman and now serves as a trustee emeritus.

Former Roanoke College President David Gring describes Wortmann as "exceptionally gifted in business. That kind of business acumen translates to Bob's work in volunteer activities. Over the past decade or more, we've seen a transformation of the campus and Bob's fingerprints are all over that."

'A full team'

According to Wortmann, the turning point in his life was when he met his future wife, Mary, on a blind date. He was immediately smitten and boldly told her that the country club where they were having dinner would be a great place for a wedding reception. "Meeting Mary gave me something to work for and toward," Wortmann said. "We wanted to start a family, so I had to concentrate on building the business."

Mulheren is struck by the close bond between the Wortmanns. "One thing about Mary is that she always has been a great partner to Bob and a great balance to Bob. He relies on her opinions and her intuitions a great deal."

Maxey agrees, noting, "You can't talk about Bob without talking about Mary because they're a full team. When they take on a job, they really take it on. They fill the room with their good will."

David Gring and his wife, Susan, became close friends with the Wortmanns and their three children, Erika, Robert Jr. and Andrea, during Gring's presidency. "They are wonderful parents. They have instilled values and ethics in their kids ... they're a very loving, very close family," Susan Gring says.

Giving back

Kerr, who has known Wortmann since their freshman year, ticks off a list of Wortmann's contributions to the College. "He's worked to improve church relations. He's worked to expand the College's art collection and art education. And Bob was instrumental in the last [fundraising] campaign."

"Gifts are a significant part of the College budget," Turbyfill says, "and he has focused his loyalty and resources on Roanoke College. His generosity has been very important."

Robert and Mary Wortmann have been Associate donors since 1980 and now count themselves among Bittle Society donors and Lifetime Distinguished Associates. Robert Wortmann also is a member of the Society of 1842, a group consisting of alumni and friends who have generously included Roanoke College in their estate plans. In October, the couple became charter members of the Roanoke Circle, a group that recognizes those with lifetime giving of $1 million or more.

In addition to helping fund the Colket Center ballroom that bears their name, the Wortmanns have donated artwork, including a bas relief sculpture by Salvador Dali.

Perhaps most extraordinary, colleagues say, is the Wortmanns' generosity with their time. Morris Cregger '64, a trustee since 1999 and the new board chairman, calls their dedication to Roanoke College "above and beyond the call of duty. They probably attended 75 to 85 percent of all the alumni dinners."

"They come down for commencement, orientation and all the board meetings," Maxey says. "They show up at all kinds of things, on campus, off campus, in their area of the country, in other parts of the country. Bob shakes every graduate's hand at commencement."

Says Gring, "For the alumni to see a trustee travel to Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia - it sends a very powerful message."

"This is not their only philanthropic interest," Susan Gring emphasizes. "They're active in arts and cultural events and the Lutheran church in their community, their state and even on national levels. They're very interested in making their world - and our world - better."

Wortmann says he was eager to give back to the College. "I saw more and more that could be done. We believe in getting involved. If you're going to be a joiner, be a joiner."

"His strength in character and loyalty and commitment ... it shines through in every single breath that he takes," Mary Wortmann says of her husband. "And I think it's seen in everything that he does, but most specifically the time he's devoted to Roanoke. It's been very special. It's been special to him, and it's been special to me."

Maxey maintains that Roanoke is forever changed by the Wortmanns' legacy.

"Bob has left this place better than he found it," Maxey says. "If we went on a Bob and Mary eight-year tour, there would be so many brilliant lights that are brighter now because of the Wortmanns."

- Alison Weaver

Released: December 13, 2011