Among his many other endeavors, Rod C. Kelchner had an interest in health and physical education. It is appropriate then that Kelchner, who earned a reputation for friendly relations with students, received an honor reserved for the most distinguished faculty members at Mansfield.
In the spring of 1998, while Kelchner was preparing to retire, the Mansfield University council of Trustees voted to name the newly-constructed recreation center in Kelchner’s honor. The trustees managed to keep the honor a secret from President Kelchner for months until they could organize a ceremony. Kelchner thought he was on his way to a meeting with a student organization when he encountered the large group of people waiting for the naming ceremony. Kelchner was genuinely surprised by the honor.
The Kelchner Fitness Center was built with student funds and replaced the old Rec Center, which was once located between Belknap Hall and Straughn Auditorium. The space is now a parking lot.
Located near the residence halls, the new fitness center offers a convenient place for resident students as well as faculty and staff to work out nearly any time. The center currently provides a whole range of fitness equipment including weight sets, rowers, stationary bicycles, and stair climbers. There is also room for basketball, volleyball, badminton, racquetball, indoor soccer, and jogging. The center also offers a whole range of extracurricular fitness classes. But the building of this state-of-the-art fitness center was hardly Kelchner’s biggest contribution to Mansfield State College and Mansfield University.
Kelchner, a native of Bloomsburg, came to Mansfield in 1964 after a short stint teaching high school in Millersburg, Pa. Prior to that, he earned his baccalaureate degree from Bloomsburg and his masters degree from Bucknell. His first assignment at Mansfield was to teach history, but that would only last until 1966, when he served as assistant and acting dean of men. In that capacity, he administered a range of services for male students at the college.
Between 1966 and 1969, Kelchner served as assistant dean of students and director of student financial aid – arguably one of the most important services the college provided to students.
During that same period, Kelchner was also the head football coach and amassed a respectable win-loss record. The Mounties went 5-4 in 1966, 6-3 in 1967, 4-5 in 1968, and 7-2 in 1969.
Following that, Kelchner was dean of students for a decade. In that capacity, he was responsible for a whole range of activities relating to students. He administered admissions, residence halls (Cedarcrest was built during his tenure in 1976), student activities, food service, athletics, recreation, student advising and counseling, fraternity and sorority advisement, and new student orientation. In fact, Kelchner was a brother of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, which had a house directly across the street from the president’s house for many years.
Between 1979 and 1983, Kelchner was more removed from student life as he served as dean of development and external relations. In that capacity, he was responsible for numerous functions, including public relations, grants and contracts, alumni affairs, development (fundraising), athletics and recreation, continuing education, College Community Services Inc. (handling money for student organizations), and relations with the government, business, and industry.
In the early 1980s, the state-owned colleges were converting to universities. At the same time, Mansfield was going through its own change in leadership. For a year, between July 1, 1983 and July 1, 1984 Kelchner served as interim president before being officially named president. He served as president until his retirement in 1998, having worked at only one campus during his entire career in higher education. He is credited with increasing enrollment to numbers not seen since the mid-1970s.
Kelchner saw many changes over the years on the campus of Mansfield State College/Mansfield University, but the biggest was perhaps the steady deterioration of North Hall. By the time Kelchner was named president, North Hall was all but abandoned. The building that had been used for classrooms, dormitories, student club meetings, a television studio, and the largest dining room in the county, was largely abandoned out of safety concerns. At one time, an arcade linked North Hall with Alumni Hall.
In the 1980s, there was a major debate about whether to tear down the venerable, but largely useless, building or to renovate it. That debate led to the formation of the “Save North Hall” committee, which Kelchner strongly backed. One sign posted on campus in 1993 argued that another state university was looking for $36 million for a new library while Mansfield only wanted $6 million. Eventually, the committee raised several million dollars and the state agreed to appropriate some money as well. In 1996, North Hall reopened as a state-of-the-art library. In addition to the major technological improvements over the old library, which was housed in Alumni Hall, the North Hall Library also consolidated all of the campus libraries. Previously, the education and music departments maintained their own libraries.
Kelchner is also credited with developing the relationship with Robert Packer Hospital. Today, nursing majors receive professional training at the Sayre Hospital. In addition, Kelchner managed to balance budgets without terminating full-time permanent employees and dealing with dwindling state appropriations. He also signed exchange programs with Australia, Canada, and Russia. Today, it is not uncommon to talk with students and professors who have studied at Volgograd State University in southern Russia.
Despite all of his work on campus, Kelchner had his share of detractors. In 1993, six of the 11 members of the council of trustees voted not to renew the president’s contract. Those six, who included the student trustee, never publicly discussed their reasons for votes. The 6-5 vote sent shockwaves through the campus and community.
Unlike the protest movements of the 1960s, the student reaction was nowhere near “us against them” unless the “them” included the six trustees. Students came together for a sit-in on the ground floor of Manser Dining Hall for their beloved president. The student radio station, WNTE, organized Rodapalooza (a take-off of the nationally known Lollapalooza Tour) in support of Kelchner. The event was held at the old Rec Center and featured a specially made t-shirt, campus and local bands playing all day, free (non-alcoholic) beer, and haircuts. An underground newspaper also appeared supporting Kelchner, though its strong language and disparaging remarks about the student trustee prevented it from being taken too seriously. The Pennsylvania Board of Governors took notice and voted to override the decision of the Mansfield council. The same pattern continued in 1994 and 1995. The terms of office for the dissenting trustees expired and they were replaced rather than re-appointed.
Kelchner was not one to keep his opinions to himself if he felt strongly about them. In one example, Kelchner represented the athletic departments for the 14 state universities at the annual NCAA conference in 1988. Following the meeting, he wrote a scathing letter to the editor for a Shippensburg newspaper complaining about the constant rule changes imposed by the NCAA. He argued that otherwise clean programs could accidentally break NCAA rules and get punished for it. In another op-ed piece for the Harrisburg Patriot in 1996, he argued that, despite the rising costs of education it is still a good investment to go to college. Beyond the obvious increased earning potential of a college graduate, a higher education also provides a student with intangibles like a desire for life-long learning and an appreciation of other cultures.
In spite of all of that, Kelchner was also extremely active off campus, with several newspapers speculating tongue-in cheek that he may have spent more time volunteering than in his paid position. On Aug. 16, 1980, a full three years before Kelchner was named interim president, the Elmira Star Gazette ran a story titled “We salute… Rodney C. Kelchner.” Mansfield State College vice president for student affairs Dr. Robert Scott commented “They (students) see him as someone who is really concerned. He is looked as someone they could go to for help.” The story outlined his positions of president of the board of North Penn Comprehensive Health Services (the forerunner of Laurel Health System), board member of Southern Tioga School District, president of the Jones Foundation (supporting youth programs in Covington and Blossburg), and member of the Kiwanis Club and Mansfield Foundation.
Later, he would serve as first chairman of the Tioga County Partnership for Community Health, which was founded in the 1990s to allow local health and public welfare organizations to work together. He also served as chairman of the Tioga County Development Corp., which works to improve the business climate in Tioga County; the Northern Tier Education Consortium; and the Pennsylvania Athletic Conference Board of Directors. TCDC named their annual leadership award in his honor, with Kelchner being the first recipient.
As if that is not enough, he was also active in the Year 2000 Planning Committee for Mansfield Borough, the board of directors of the University Center and the Commission of Universities for the State System of Higher Education, Laurel Health System’s Development Council, the NCAA’s President’s Commission, Intermediate Unit 17, Tioga County Cancer Crusade, and the finance committee of the Blossburg and Mansfield Methodist churches.
Kelchner retired in 1998 and he and his wife, Joan, moved to State College. Rod told the Wellsboro Gazette that year, that he enjoyed the university atmosphere and wanted to live in a college town.
In December, 2005, Mansfield University invited Rod and Joan back and Rod spoke at the fall commencement. He gave a stirring speech and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters, an honor that has only been given to one other person: Helen Lutes.