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Sunday, July 3, 2022

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Leaving a Job He Loves

John Kolek retires as associate executive director of SDSU Associated Students after 28 years on campus.
By Tobin Vaughn

In 1989, John Kolek came to San Diego State University to help build and operate a student activity center. Twenty-eight years later, he departs the campus as the only director Viejas Arena has ever known.

Having helped plan, construct, and then operate the arena since its 1997 opening, Kolek will retire July 7 from his position as associate executive director of SDSU Associated Students. In that role, he oversees operation of the student-owned Viejas Arena and Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre (OAT) along with some aspects of the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center.

I love my job,” Kolek said. “With each event, there's a different crisis or different success that happens. Every day that we are operating the facilities is an adventure.”

It is the kind of adventure Kolek never anticipated while completing his accounting degree at Northern Arizona University. At graduation, he accepted a position as finance manager of the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome, NAU’s indoor multipurpose stadium.

“I kind of fell into it,” Kolek said of the job that in just seven years would lead to his role as manager of NAU’s athletics facilities and eventually to his current position at SDSU. “I was just lucky.”

Asset to the campus

Others will tell you luck has nothing to do with it. SDSU Associated Students Executive Director Christina Brown describes Kolek as an outstanding manager who is utterly devoted to his staff, students and to SDSU.

“John has fantastic partnerships on campus, and it is hard to find someone who doesn't have a great word to say about him,” Brown said. “We are all family to him, and he is absolutely dedicated to service.”

Tim Ripke (’90), who currently serves as interim director of Viejas Arena, has worked with Kolek since before the facility was completed. He describes Kolek as soft-spoken, humble and an “absolutely fantastic” boss.

“Anyone can call him about a challenge, and he will listen and help as best he can,” Ripke said. “John has been an asset to the entire campus.”

Ripke said Kolek, as a supervisor, is quick to take the blame and quicker to offer praise and accolades to his team. In fact, the mild-mannered Kolek can remember losing his legendary cool only twice in his career, both during circumstances when his staff faced “undue criticism.”

Showcasing SDSU

It takes a lot to get Kolek fired up, but SDSU men’s basketball is guaranteed to quicken his pulse. “There is nothing more exciting than when the team is on a roll and the students are jumping up and down and chanting the ‘I believe that we will win,’” he said. “I enjoy that so much."

Former Aztec men’s basketball head coach Steve Fisher is just as big a fan of Kolek.

“John is a team player who is hardworking, dedicated, trustworthy, relatable, loyal and full of integrity,” Fisher said.

Working together through Viejas Arena, both Fisher and Kolek have helped raise the profile of the entire university. When the success of the teams focused national attention on SDSU, Kolek made sure the Viejas Arena staff was focused on showcasing the team, the arena, and the university in the best possible light.

After its first experience with hosting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament opening rounds in 2001, the arena received the highest possible marks from tournament organizers. Even though Viejas Arena doesn’t meet the organization’s minimum seating standards, the NCAA came back in 2006, 2014 and will return again in 2018. That’s a testament to Kolek and his team’s ability to run flawless events.

An unexpected legacy

Included among Kolek’s many accomplishments during his almost three decades on Montezuma Mesa are a redesign that made the arena compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and a total renovation of the OAT, complete with new seating, stage roof, concession facility, concourse and restrooms. The improvements have helped increase concert bookings from fewer than 10 annually just a few years ago to an expected 27 shows during the current concert season.

“It has been kind of a dream of mine since I got here to improve the facilities and make everything we are responsible for the best facilities around,” Kolek said. “Having accomplished that mission “is just hugely satisfying for me and all of our staff.”

As keen as he is on providing the highest level of service to guests at the facilities he oversees, Kolek has always kept in mind the primary purpose of each campus venue: to enhance the experience of students at SDSU. He has mentored and assisted dozens during his tenure on campus and has supervised hundreds, if not thousands, many of whom still keep in touch.

If Viejas Arena is the crowning glory of his career, then he is prouder of only one thing. It is an unexpected legacy he leaves as he retires.

“We never anticipated being as successful as we were,” Kolek said of the arena that celebrates its 20th anniversary next month. “(Viejas) is paid for by a student fee and the plan always was that after five years the fee would be raised and probably every five years from there on because nobody dreamed we could achieve what we did.

“I'm very proud of the fact that we made it a nationally recognized facility and we have never had to raise that student fee in the 20 years that we have been open."

Quite an accomplishment and a retirement well earned.