Bob Shipley, The University of Tulsa’s associate vice president for operations and physical plant, is reluctant to accept the title of Mr. Homecoming 2017 as an individual, preferring to think of himself as just accepting the honor on behalf of his team.
“I was named Mr. Homecoming because the Physical Plant staff does such a good job. You can’t get the whole crew – 130 people – on the podium for the award,” he said. “I am fortunate to be the face of the Physical Plant; therefore, I get the award.”
Shipley describes his unit succinctly: “The university provides education, and the Physical Plant provides a platform for the educators.” The department includes electricians, painters, climate control engineers, carpenters, locksmiths, mechanics and what Shipley calls the Special Services Group that deals with everything from bees to bats. “The craziest requests and most interesting to solve are the animals and insects that get into wrong places,” he said.
Always humble and forever grounded in the Oklahoma soil, Shipley graduated from Nowata High School and the University of Oklahoma. His parents were educators, and he has found his way to connect with their careers through his 25 years at the university. “I was determined to be an engineer instead of a school teacher,” Shipley said. “I did inherit the love of teaching as well as the respect and admiration of teachers. At OU, I earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business.”
After college, Shipley worked at a few companies – including Crest Engineering, where he designed and constructed buildings, and American Airlines, where he learned to manage large projects – and even started his own company before finding himself out of a job in 1992. “To pass the time and lift my spirits, I began installing an irrigation system in my front yard,” he said. “My neighbor Dennis Zigrang was aghast that I was digging a ditch 4 inches at a time and came over to see what was wrong with me. I told him that I was an unemployed engineer. Dennis, a retired aerospace engineer and a mechanical engineering professor at TU, was impressed with my sprinkler layout and my do-it-yourself attitude. He called the Physical Plant and recommended me for an opening as a facilities engineer. He told me the university was a great place to work.
“I was thrilled to work on a beautiful campus full of young people and people who cared about education. I was exploring other job opportunities on industrial sites, off-shore platforms and out of the country. My young family needed me at home – and I needed them – so TU was a perfect fit.”
Shipley was saddened by the passing of TU President Emeritus Steadman Upham, who spearheaded recent campus expansion initiatives that were carried out by Physical Plant. Shipley also thanked Trustee Bill Fisher and the late Fulton Collins, who served as board chairman, for providing the inspiration that turned the university from a mostly commuter school to a pristine residential campus.
A keen listener and learner, Shipley believes he has found a home at TU. “It is so gratifying to work with people who enjoy their job, who are proud of their association with education, who are inclusive and respectful of one another and have the opportunity to do something good every day,” he said. “The University of Tulsa is special because our leaders and our community take the high road.”
His favorite TU event is the bell ringing ceremony before commencement. “It is so gratifying to witness the exuberance of seniors celebrating years of toil. After all, a big percentage of their lives was spent working toward graduation,” he said. “On a personal level, I enjoy and take pride in the diversity of the students and their parents who come to experience this celebration. It moves me. I can rarely walk by this event without shedding a tear.”