Barbee Finds Right Place

September 9, 2002
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ALLENDALE — Who says you can’t go home again? Not Chris Barbee.

Barbee recently began his third tour of duty with Grand Valley State University when he was selected to replace the retiring Nancee Miller as the school’s director of alumni relations and executive director of the alumni association.

The affable Barbee did his first tour at GVSU as a student from 1984 to 1988. Then he went to work for the university-owned West Michigan Public Broadcasting, reporting radio news and hosting television shows for six years.

He stepped away from the campus for the next eight-and-a-half years to serve as press secretary for Congressman Vern Ehlers before moving into his new office at the Allendale campus last month.

“I’ve been in the right place at the right time,” said Barbee, a 36-year-old native of Kalamazoo.

“When I graduated with a broadcasting degree from Grand Valley, West Michigan Public Broadcasting was looking to fill a position at the radio station. I applied for the job and was fortunate enough to get it,” he said.

“Six years later, when I was looking for a new challenge, I received a phone call asking me if I wanted to be part of the Ehlers team. The timing was perfect and I took that opportunity.”

Barbee left the politics of Washington, D.C., behind largely because his wife Janice gave birth to their daughter, Maya, nearly three months ago. They wanted to raise her in a more secure environment, like West Michigan, and be closer to their respective families, who live in the area.

So with Janice being from Grand Rapids and with Barbee having Laker-blue blood flowing through his veins, Grand Valley seemed a logical place for him to look for his next challenge. As it turned out, his alma mater was the only place he had to look.

“I made a list of where I wanted to work. It was a short list, because it only included Grand Valley,” he said. “I drew up another list of departments I wanted to work in on campus, and alumni relations came to mind because it was an area that I thought would fit my personality. I knew the people in the office and I liked what they did.”

Barbee said the alumni relation’s staff made a strong impression on him because they helped him out a few times while he was in Washington.

“I’m calling this my third tour of duty here at Grand Valley.”

Now that Barbee is back home, he is getting accustomed to being the head alumnus of a growing alumni association that claims some of the area’s key business people as members. He also is following in the deeply imprinted footsteps of a university icon in Miller, who spent 17 successful years working with the school’s alumni.

In contrast, Barbee has been on the job a few hours short of three weeks.

“It’s been wall-to-wall meetings, getting out and re-introducing myself to members of the campus community and also meeting many new people. I’m trying to make as many phone calls as I can just to say hello to folks and let them know that I’m here now,” he said. “I’m trying to meet with deans, students and whoever will listen, just to let them know that our office is here to help them however we can.”

Barbee is as impressed with the building he is located in as he is with the people in his department. His office is in the Alumni House and Visitors Center, which sits near the main entrance of the Allendale campus.

“We have a beautiful facility. Janice and I had our wedding reception here. So I get to come to the house where we had a great day that day. We actually are in the first building that people see when they come on campus,” he said.

“That building sends a message to everyone that comes on campus. It was built by alumni with money that they donated because they felt that their university was important enough to give back to, and that is the kind of message that we hope all alumni share.”

As director of alumni relations, Barbee is responsible for maintaining and enhancing the relationship the school has with its alumni and their family members. His mission is to promote and foster a continuing interest in the university and to help Grand Valley grow.

But when he isn’t doing that, Barbee likes to play tennis, having played in a league in Virginia before coming back here. He also likes to read fiction and biographies.

“I like to spend time with my family and keep up with friends,” he said.

Barbee said it wasn’t easy to leave Ehlers, whom he considers a close friend, and a city that offers as much drama as Washington does. Many images of the nation’s capital remain with him, including last year’s terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the anthrax mailings.

Still, the job did provide him with some memories that qualify as comic relief. Like when he first got to Washington and had to attend his initial team-building meeting. The meeting had been cancelled, but he didn’t know that at the time.

“I went to the room in the Capitol where I thought the meeting was and walked in. I saw Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House at the time, the majority leader Dick Armey and a bunch of staff people sitting around. I had to walk to the other side of the room past all the people there. After I sat down, I realized I was in the wrong meeting,” said Barbee.

“I discovered I was in a Republican leadership meeting and nobody stopped me at the door. I guess I looked like I belonged or something,” he laughed.

Even if Barbee didn’t belong at that meeting, he knows where he should be now — and that is where he is.

“I love Grand Valley and always have since I stepped foot on campus. As a junior in high school in 1983, I came up for my first tour. From that day forward, I’ve been a Laker,” he said.

“To come back to the university in this position is a dream job and I really am excited to be back. I look forward to being here for a while and I’m hoping I can keep the standards that have been set and try some new things to make our alumni association the best that it can be.”     

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