Larry Vanderhoef apologizes for his casual attire as he takes a seat on his office couch.
“I’m sorry,” the UC Davis chancellor says. “I hadn’t planned on coming in today.“
He’s wearing a patterned tan and black collared shirt and a plain pair of white pants usually reserved for outside the walls of fifth-floor Mrak Hall.
Cindy, his secretary, told him a few hours earlier I wanted to meet with him, but he still isn’t entirely sure why.
He’s a professional, though. He’ll play along.
I turn on my tape recorder and place it on the small table in front of him.
“That’s good there,” he says. “I’ll keep my feet off [the table].“
The interview begins. Over the next 30 minutes, Vanderhoef speaks with expected eloquence. He skips from topic to topic with ease, from stem cell research to endowments to Iran.
Associate Chancellor Maril Stratton joins us. It’s her job to make sure Vanderhoef stays on track and doesn’t say anything off-limits to the media.
She quietly nods her head with approval as he says all the right things.
I listen. I wait. Stem cell research, endowments, Iran – those subjects aren’t why we’re in this meeting. Not today.
It’s late Thursday afternoon, the building is emptying, and unbeknownst to either of them, the reason why the chancellor is in his office with me right now has everything to do with nacho cheese.
Yes, nacho cheese.
Over the past four years I’ve attended somewhere around 80 home basketball games at UC Davis, and sure as the opening tip-off, there is a scene shown on the Pavilion scoreboard monitor at each one of them: Vanderhoef with nachos.
He’ll either be walking with the nachos or eating them on the blue upper-deck bleachers with his wife, Rosalie, at his side.
After four years, I have to ask, and so I do: “Pretty good nachos?”
I can hardly finish the question.
“I like those nachos, and I especially like the cheese,” Vanderhoef says, and his speech quickens as his eyebrows tighten in mild frustration. “I’ve looked all over for the kind of cheese that Sodexo uses. I couldn’t find it. I finally had to go to Sodexo and say, ‘Hey, I want to buy cheese.‘ They said, ‘Fine. It comes in a package this big.‘“
The chancellor stretches his arms out wide to demonstrate the size of the nacho cheese package.
“And it is [that big],” he continues with a laugh. “They put them in those machines they have.“
Vanderhoef looks over to Stratton and then shakes his head mildly, as if scolding himself for spending so much time talking about nacho cheese. Then he’s back to talking business as usual.
It‘s too late, though. I’ve seen what I came to see.
A day earlier, The Aggie editor-in-chief Adam Loberstein invited me to write this column. This is my final quarter at UC Davis before graduation, so he offered to give me one last story to say whatever I felt needed to be said.
This quarter is also the last for Vanderhoef as chancellor.
Before either of us left UC Davis (Vanderhoef will return as a faculty member following an administrative leave), I had to see if my chancellor was who I thought he was.
Sure enough, he is.
Vanderhoef is a student’s chancellor. He rides his bike amongst the students. He exercises with them at the ARC. He waits in line with them at the ASUCD Coffee House for food.
He does all that for the world to see.
But behind closed doors, in his office on a late Thursday afternoon, with the building emptying and his tenure coming to a close, you see it’s genuine.
You see it when he fights the urge to lounge on his office couch with his feet up. You see it when his eyes enlarge talking about nacho cheese. You see it when his arms stretch out like a child’s to define size.
There is an intelligence and professionalism to Vanderhoef that has made him the face of this university for the past 15 years, but it’s the youthful energy behind it all that has made him our chancellor.
Vanderhoef watched UC Davis outgrow Division II and, despite faculty skepticism, chose to take the university to Division I.
He advanced this school’s academics to the point where at this month’s commencements, our diplomas will carry more value than ever before.
His final act as chancellor will be to see it through.
“I love doing the graduations,” said Vanderhoef, who will miss only one ceremony due to a time confliction with the Graduate School of Management. “I usually share them with the provost, but I want to shake as many hands as I can.“
The class of 2009 will see you there, but this graduation, it’ll be different.
You won‘t be shaking our hands.
We’ll be shaking yours.
MICHAEL GEHLKEN graduates from UC Davis on June 14 at 9 a.m. After that he’s returning home to San Diego unemployed, like a boss. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.