Want to take a tour of UGA? Visitors Center is square one
Opened just prior to the '96 Olympics, the Visitors Center has proved so popular that it breaks tour attendance records every year
by Pat Curry
he question seemed simple to the woman asking it: how do I get to the McDonald's in downtown Athens?
But to the student behind the desk at the UGA Visitors Center, it was a real head-scratcher. The only McDonald's locations he knew of were on the Atlanta Highway and Prince Avenue, both well beyond the boundaries of downtown.
The woman was insistent, and then belligerent. She had friends who had told her to meet them at the McDonald's in downtown. She left in a huff.
A few hours later, the woman called back, apologizing profusely. Her friends, it turned out, had never said to meet them at McDonald's. The intended rendezvous point was actually . . .
Open seven days a week, except for official holidays, the visitors center is located in a beautifully renovated barn that was originally built with WPA funds during the Depression. It is staffed by 29 part-time student workers and two full-time directors.
For the students who staff the information desk and phone line at the visitors center, no question is too basic, no request too arcane, no visitor too difficultor too zanynot to treat with extreme TLC.
"We had a lady call and tell us she was seeing faces in her dresser drawers," director Fran Lane recalls. "She was looking for someone who was an expert in the paranormal."
When it opened in January 1996, the visitors center was expected to showcase the University of Georgia to the thousands of people attending the Summer Olympics in Athens. But it quickly proved to be indispensable on a much wider scale.
"We thought we'd never top the numbers we had the first year," says Lane (AB '69, MEd '71), "but we've done it every year since."
In five-plus years, the center has logged more than 188,000 contactscounting people who stop by for information and directions; those who sign up for the free, student-led campus tours; and parents and students who want the staff to function as quasi-real estate agents. The information-line phone rings off the wall. And that 188,000 figure doesn't count the e-mails student volunteers answer from all over the world.
Open seven days a week, except for official UGA holidays, the visitors center is housed in a former barn built with WPA funds during the Depression ("I got eggs the first six months we were here," quips Lane). It is staffed by 29 undergraduate students, plus Lane and manager Megan Fisher (ABJ '00). The students are selected according to whether they have an outgoing personality, a level of comfort speaking in front of a group, and an involvement in campus activitiesall of which should translate into enthusiasm about the University and what it has to offer.
"We want people who can give a more in-depth answer than just 'UGA is great, I love it so much,'" says Fisher, who was a student staffer herself before taking a full-time job at the center last year.
Ali Bracken, a senior English major from Eden Prairie, Minn., will never forget the first question she was asked after she started working at the center.
"A man called and asked, 'What are the names of the buildings on campus?' I said, 'Sir, we have more than 300 buildings,' and he said, 'Well?' He was waiting for me to start naming them."
The man also wanted to know what kinds of roof each building had. Bracken connected him to Physical Plant.
Students lead the campus tours, and they are encouraged to personalize their narration with real-world perspectives on college life
In addition to staffing the information desk, students also lead campus tours, with one student handling the wheel of the center's 13-passenger bus and the other narrating the tour, DisneyWorld-style. They switch places in the course of the one-hour tour, which includes a walking tour of North Campus. While covering the basics of University life and UGA's rich history, student volunteers are encouraged to personalize the tours with their own real-world perspective.
"That's because 75-80 percent of the people on the tour are prospective students and their parents," says Lane. "They want to hear what it's really like on campus."
Former history professor Nash Boney, who is a walking encyclopedia on all things UGA, has nothing but praise for the tour and the student guides. "It gives visitors a very accurate picture of the University of Georgia," says Boney, who is the author of the newly revised A Pictorial History of The University of Georgia (UGA Press). "Until I talked to a tour guide, I didn't know freshmen didn't have to live on campus."
Armed with facts and figures on the number of majors (currently 170), the student population (32,000 expected this fall), and the seating capacity of Sanford Stadium (86,520), student tour leaders give visitors the skinny on the most comfortable place to study (Terry College of Business lounges), campus food (it's award-winning), and the realities of dorm life (getting paired with a roommate you don't know can, in fact, work out great).
Occasionally, someone misunderstands something. One woman was amazed to hear that 18 percent of UGA students are Greeks.
"She said, 'I know there's a big Italian population in the Northeast," recalls tour guide Gretchen D'Huyvetter, "but I had no idea there were that many Greeks here.'"
UGA trivia from the campus tour
Fast facts about the UGA Visitors Center
|Location||Four Towers Building, College Station Road, just east of the new University Health Center and directly across the street from the intramural fields|
|Hours||Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.
Closed on official UGA holidays
|Services||Information and referral, guided tours. All services are provided free of charge|
|Tours||Tours are given three times daily on weekdays, twice a day on Saturdays, and once on Sunday afternoons (new times are being finalized).
Special tours also are available for groups.
Call for reservations
Man behind the scenes
Georgia's athletic program comes under intense media scrutiny, and the self-effacing Claude Felton, who keeps press relations running smoothly, just received his profession's highest honor
by Josh Kendall (ABJ '95)
f you train your binoculars on the Sanford Stadium pressbox on a football Saturday, you might catch a glimpse of Claude Felton. Standing near his statistics crew on the west side of the pressbox, he's the quiet, unassuming fellow in glasses who presides over the media circus that surrounds Georgia athletics. Need a quote from Vince Dooley?
Talk to Claude. Gotta get in touch with Herschel Walker? Talk to Claude. Lost your press pass? Talk to Claude.
The only time "talk to Claude" doesn't work very well is when he's just been inducted into the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Hall of Fame and you're trying to get the 52-year-old Savannah native to talk about himself.
Felton, shown setting up interviews for new football coach Mark Richt at Media Day in August, started his career at UGA in 1975 and succeeded Dan Magill as sports information director the following year. He has worked in press operations at both the 1984 and '96 Olympics, and this past summer he was inducted into the CoSIDA Hall of Fame.
"Claude doesn't like to be out on the forefront of anything," says Karlene Lawrence, who has worked with Felton (ABJ '70, MA '71) in the UGA athletic department for 19 years. "We put stuff in his bio file, but he just takes it out."
Felton couldn't avoid the spotlight on July 4 in San Diego when he was inducted into the CoSIDA Hall of Fame. The honor is reflective of not only his exemplary work at UGA but the special duty he pulled at both the 1984 and '96 Olympic Games.
"I think (flattering attention) does have a certain amount of discomfort or embarrassment for anybody who spends most days trying to focus the spotlight on other people," says Felton, after finally being cornered for this story.
Felton's titlesenior associate athletic director for external affairsdoesn't fully describe his far-reaching responsibilities.
After heading the information services office at Georgia Southern following graduation, Felton took a job as assistant sports information director at UGA in 1975. He was promoted to director in 1976, and his role has grown over the years. For the past two years, he has overseen not only the sports information department, but also the ticket and development offices.
Felton's main responsibility is bridging the ticklish gap between the athletic department and the media. The best gauge of his effectiveness is the effusive praise he receives from both sides.
"In my mind, he's one of the best I've dealt with," says Chris Dufresne, national college football writer for the Los Angeles Times. "As an outsider, going to a University of Georgia football game is one of the most unique experiences I've had. They talk about Southern hospitality, and I've never seen it more evident than at a Georgia game. It's as if you're invited into someone's home. I think that's uniquely Claude. He's got a special touch."
Ivan Maisel, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, has known Felton since Maisel covered the NCAA men's tennis championships in Athens in 1980-81 as a writer for Stanford's student newspaper.
"It's very comforting to have Claude pick up the phone when you call down there," says Maisel. "I know when I call him, I'm going to find out what I need to know about the Dogs. That sounds simplistic, but it's not something you can count on at every school."
The man who picked Felton for the job is the same man who picked Uga to be the school mascot.
"He's one of the few people I've ever known who I've never heard anybody say one bad thing about," says Dan Magill (ABJ '42), who chose Felton as his successor when he left the position of sports information director after nearly three decades on the job.
Athletic director Vince Dooley says Felton was his first and most important administrative hire. "He has proven to be an invaluable asset for the University of Georgia," says Dooley, "and for me personally."
"Claude is almost never ruffled . . . he's just so even-keeled," says sportswriter Charles Odum (ABJ '83). "He's very Dooley-like in his personality and emphasis on loyalty. He's been a good alter ego and a good right-hand man for Dooley."
"I know when I call him, I'm going to find out what I need to know about the Dogs. That sounds simplistic, but it's not something you can count on at every school."Ivan Maisel, Sports Illustrated
At Media Day in August, Felton (left) brought linebacker Will Witherspoon to the interview room and (right) ran interference for Coach Richt.
When Felton's induction into the CoSIDA Hall of Fame was announced, Karlene Lawrence secretly sent messages to media members around the country seeking words of congratulations for a commemorative scrapbook. She already has 250 entries and there's a stack of late arrivals on her desk.
Having survived the firestorm of flattery directed his way this summer, Felton is back in his element. Georgia plays four home games in September, and with Mark Richt starting a new era as football coach of the Dogs the Sanford Stadium pressbox will be overflowing each week.
Felton, who chaired CoSIDA's ethics committee from 1985-91, has a full-time staff of nine and he oversees anywhere from 10-12 student assistants. They have plenty to do. The statistics from any Georgia sporting event that fans read in newspapers and magazines or hear on television and radio originate from Felton's office. Requests for interviews with Georgia athletes and coaches all come through Felton's office.
Felton's career has spanned the glory days of Georgia athletics, from the football team's national title in 1980 to the recent titletown era, which has featured nine national NCAA championships in the last three years. He counts Eric Zeier, Terry Hoage, Matt Stinchcomb, and Greg Talley among his favorite football players, and his favorite memories are predictable ones: being with Herschel Walker at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York in 1982 when he was awarded the Heisman Trophy, and the emotions surrounding Dooley's final game as head football coach in 1988.
Little things, moments no one else remembers, are important to him.
One of Felton's clearest recollections is of the day in 1990 when it was announced that Talley, who had started at quarterback the year before, had lost his job to Preston Jones during preseason practice. (Talley later won the job back and finished the year as the starter.) Felton remembers exactly where he was standing when the media crowded around Talley to ask him how it felt to be bumped to No. 2.
"What a tough thing for Greg Talley to have to experience," says Felton, "but his answer was, 'When I signed with Georgia, I didn't sign to be the starting quarterback. I signed to be a Georgia Bulldog.' He was the epitome of the team concept."
And so, too, is Claude Felton, a humble man who until recently drove a rusting 1972 Ford Maverick to work. His oldest son Christopher, a student at UGA, has now inherited the vehicle.
"It still runs," says Felton, "and it also has a way of reminding you where you came from."