By David Rogers. April 24, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — The Greek word “polymath” refers to a person whose expertise spans a number of different subject areas. Alice Roess may not be a great inventor like Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci or the scientific revolutionary of a Galileo, but the range and scope of her interests and knowledge might qualify her as a “Renaissance Woman.”
All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Blowing Rock News sat down with the current Chairperson of the Appalachian State Board of Trustees recently, to learn more about her perspective and view of the world, including the High Country. It is a story about business and real estate, about military veterans, world cruises, and rescue dogs
Blowing Rock News (BRN): Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Alice Roess (laughing): Well, there don’t seem to be very many true native Floridians with all of the migration from New York, New Jersey and the like, but I was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. I like to say that I am a “true” native! I attended Ashley Hall School for Girls in Charleston, South Carolina. I was really a second generation “Ashley Hall girl” and I loved it!
When I was growing up, I went to boarding school all year and then to summer camp all summer. Really, I was a third generation summer camp girl.
Any time we had between school and summer camp, I spent in the mountains of North Carolina, primarily in Laurel Park, in Hendersonville, where my family all had summer homes. I started spending time in the North Carolina mountains when I was just 10 days old and have been coming here ever since.
BRN: What were your primary interests as a child?
I spent a great deal of my time on horses, especially hunter/jumpers. My mother was an avid equestrienne. She and her only sibling, my aunt, were my role models. There was also swimming, of course.
Eckerd College had a very international student body.
BRN (smiling): Was that important to escape the alligators?
AR (chuckling): If you are going to live in Florida you really have to be a good swimmer! But I was also on the tennis team. There was something else I enjoyed a lot, too, that may have been a little unusual for a girl. I was on a Florida women’s skeet and trap team and thoroughly enjoyed that.
BRN: Do you consider yourself generally athletic
AR: Well, I have always been very athletic – at least until a couple of accidents with my rescue dogs left me lots of “screws” up and down my right side. Naturally, I still have the dogs, but sports have had to take a back seat. Now pets occupy my time — and “twilight” gardening. They are all white blooms in memory of my late husband and only child, my daughter Florence Alice. Those activities have replaced sports.
He always wore ties — every day of his life.
BRN: Do you miss Florida at all?
AR: Funny you should ask. Every once in awhile someone will ask that question and I always answer without an instant of hesitation: Not for one minute! Especially today, there are just too many people.
BRN: Did you go on to college?
AR: Yes. I graduated from Eckerd College, a private college in St. Petersburg named after a significant benefactor, Jack Eckerd. And just in case you are wondering, yes, he was the drugstore magnate and a very generous man. Eckerd College had a very international student body. It was so very interesting!
BRN: Can you tell us a little bit about your husband?
AR: My husband, The Honorable Martin John Roess, was indeed a grand part of my life. Both he and his father were Cornell University men. Martin graduated Phi Beta Kappa and from Cornell Law School. He wore the key on his ties – and he always wore ties – every day of his life. His only siblings graduated from Randolph Macon and Duke, and they were also Phi Beta Kappas. That’s a tough act for their children to follow!
I was “hooked” on real estate.
My husband was a wonderful man. He taught me a lot during our time together. While a part of the New Deal in Washington, D.C., he soon learned that he preferred finance and banking. His family was originally from Ocala, Florida so he returned to St. Petersburg and opened a savings and loan and also banks.
That is where I got my start in real estate. I headed up his real estate holding company. I got my real estate broker’s license, my mortgage broker’s license, my certified property management license, etc., etc. I was “hooked” on real estate.
Thinking back, I got my first real estate license 42 years ago. Good grief! (laughing)
Betwixt and between our business activities, Martin and I loved cruises. We went on seven world cruises and 60 other, shorter cruises to various other ports.
BRN: Let’s talk about your path to becoming Chair of the Appalachian State University Board of Trustees? How did that come about?
AR: Well, I had been friends with Ken and Roseanne Peacock for many years. A little less than nine years ago, Ken called me. He said, “I’d really love for you to serve on the Appalachian Board of Trustees.”
I replied that I would love it, that it would be a great honor! I added that I would be a hard worker, but also warned him that I was not an academic. I have been in some aspect of business all of my life, primarily in real estate. I love to explore financing alternatives, mortgages…anything that can be creative in the world of business. He said, “That’s what I need. We need strong business people on the board.”
BRN: What is the composition of the App State Board of Trustees?
AR: There are 13 members, which also includes the President of the student government. That is Jalyn Howard this year. The student body president is a voting member of the Board. Then, in addition, there are the Chair of Faculty Senate, Chair of Staff Senate, and Chair of the Alumni Council. Of course, the Chancellor is always present.
I told him he did need business people.
BRN: So how did you respond to Dr. Peacock’s invitation?
AR: I told him that he did need business people on the Board of Trustees because Appalachian State is a very big business!
There are some big differences between academics and business people. Academics want EVERYTHING that is best for students. Business people also want what is best for students, but the business people have to go out and get the money in order to provide that “everything.”
BRN: When did you join the Board of Trustees?
AR: I came on in September of 2008. Sadly, I rotate off this coming June and I hadn’t realized that it would have such an impact on me. It’s amazing when I think of how sad I feel about rotating off because I have gotten to know so many members of the faculty, as well as a lot of the students. I love the students.
BRN: Let’s talk about that. What do you love about the students?
AR: They are so enthusiastic! Most of them have never been away from home before. This is a big adventure. And what is not to love about the mountains and Appalachian?
In many ways, that is the story. I have served two, four-year terms – which is all anyone is permitted to serve. I could go off a year and then come back on, but you need new blood from time to time in any organization.
I love the students.
BRN (smiling): So do you think Congress could take some lessons in term limits?
AR (laughing): Absolutely! Actually, there might be some lessons in term limits for local governments, too. New blood – having new people serve in leadership roles – is very important in running almost any organization. Tradition and experience count for a lot, but new ideas and a new perspective on issues are also important.
BRN: You mentioned your business experience as valuable to the board, but what else have you brought to this leadership role and what are some of the achievements of the board where you played an instrumental role.
AR: Right off the top of my head, there are two issues that I have primarily dealt with. First, I am on the ad hoc real estate portfolio committee appointed by the Chancellor. The university has been given and has bought over the years a lot of land. Today it totals almost 2,000 acres. The Physical Plant folks and the Business Affairs folks have put together a large notebook with the details of our land assets. We can’t use or sell some of it for certain things because there are restrictions placed on some parcels by the donors.
There are three men with me on the ad hoc committee. All of us are in real estate. Our mission is to figure out what the university can do with each parcel. If the university cannot utilize it in any way, ever, then we need to figure out something else to do with it.
BRN: How far flung are these holdings, geographically?
AR: Reasonably close. A good portion of the acreage is in Watauga County, some in Ashe County, including some of the larger tracts. But a lot of it we can utilize in sustainability, environment, farming, and all.
BRN: What are the typical kinds of restrictions?
AR: Some of them say the university can’t sell it, that it has to be used by App State. There are restrictions not so much on HOW the real estate is used, just that it must be used by the university.
So I am very proud of our work on the real estate holdings of the university and assessing their utilization and value.
BRN: What is your second area of primary interest?
AR: I am also very proud of the university’s new Student Veteran Resource Center. We were one of the last two universities in the state that did not have a student veterans resource center. I like to think that I was instrumental in getting that to come about. We opened last November 11th, on Veterans Day.
Not everyone can possibly understand what they have experienced.
I have been in there, just kind of in the background when student veterans come in. They will just start talking. Veterans need someone to talk to who understands what they have been through, what it is like to serve in the military and in combat situations. While I am sure they all have a lot of non-military student friends, not everyone can possibly understand what they have experienced. So this student veterans center is now a very important part of Appalachian State. I am very proud of it.
BRN: As chairman of the Board of Trustees this year, what did you craft as your objectives?
AR: My objectives always include fundraising, particularly this year. As in all universities, especially where there has been a change in leadership, there has been some turmoil, as well as turnover at Appalachian State. You have to overcome that, deal with those issues, and get everything balanced. Sometimes it affects fundraising. When people aren’t on the inside, they don’t know exactly what is transpiring. They just know what they hear.
We don’t normally have a retreat, but we had one this year, in March. I have lunch periodically with the Chancellor and I share with her what I hear. I call the other trustees, often, and ask them if they have any specific things they want to address when we meet.
Fundraising is really, almost always, at the top of the list.
Enrollment is good. Students are good. I am particularly interested in the concept of building out the end zone development at Kidd-Brewer Stadium. I am interested in health care, too.
Now this goes back to real estate, but I am an advocate of not selling property that may be close to strategic projects or initiatives. Parking, for example, is almost always going to be an issue.
Parking is always going to be an issue.
BRN: There are a lot of folks in the area not connected with the school that have been concerned that university leadership hasn’t always put a high enough priority on providing adequate parking to go along with the school’s development and growth.
AR: Well, I can understand that. A lot of that is driven by the net enrollment at the university. It’s not a popular subject, but a lot of the freshmen have cars, even if they are not supposed to have them. Let’s say you have 3,000 new students each year so that represents quite an increase in traffic. Of course, you also have students graduating and leaving the university, but each year over the past several we have seen net increases in enrollment. That means more student cars, more cars driven by parents when they come for a visit, and more cars being driven by people serving the increases in the student population. These put a strain on transportation infrastructure and, very importantly, that includes parking.
There are some private garages going up around town or are at least in the works, and some of those will be near the university. They of course will charge for their use, which they should. Those can be sizable amounts of money, too. But it is beneficial all the way around if we can create public-private partnerships when it comes to parking.
BRN: Is it fair to say that over the last couple of decades the university has been allowed to grow and grow and grow without addressing parking, but maybe things are changing now?
AR: Well, that is mostly correct. And yes, you now have a chancellor who has made adequate and affordable parking a priority. And very importantly, the economic environment is favorable for addressing the inherent costs in way that hasn’t been as favorable in the past.
You know, whether you look at basketball game attendance, theatrical performances, or guest lectures open to the public, having better and more accessible parking is important. For a lot of my friends in Blowing Rock, they often don’t go to events and activities on campus because of parking. Parking is the #1 problem for them.
BRN: Well, let’s wind this interview down with one final question. What can the Board of Trustees do to help alleviate the parking problem?
AR: It all comes full circle back to fundraising, in many respects. The North Carolina legislature keeps restricting us as far as finances go, so we have to go out and get the money, whatever we lose in state budgeting, as well as more money for special projects that include providing for essential needs. That’s a big reason I am involved with the real estate ad hoc committee, to get some money for the university. If we are not using this land or there is no strategic value, let’s figure out a way to monetize it. Let’s sell it or trade it or something. We have to monetize these assets somehow.