Alumni & Friends

Recognition Awards

Outstanding Tiger Alumni Award


Rod Elder

Class of 1972


Rod ElderHe admits he lacked focus his first time at Cowley College, but things have turned out nicely for Rod Elder.


The 1972 graduate of Cowley has spent his career as an architect, designing schools and accommodating the disabled. His experience ensuring that structures meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements earned him an appointment to the Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.


For all of his efforts, Elder was selected as a winner of the 1999 Outstanding Tiger Alumni Award. Logan McCabe, a 1938 graduate, is the other award-winner for this year. The two men were honored May 8 during Cowley College’s 76th commencement exercises. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I went to Cowley,“ Elder said. “I hadn’t planned well.“


Elder graduated from Arkansas City High School in 1966 and enrolled at Cowley that same year. He attended for two years but had no direction, so he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1968. He saw active duty until 1971 and went into the Naval Reserves. He went back to Cowley in the fall of 1971. “I had less than a stellar performance those first two years at Cowley,“ Elder said. “There’s a lot of kids right out of high school who don’t know what they want, and that’s the way I was.“ During his second stint at Cowley, Elder remembers accounting instructor Catherine Goehring fondly. “I failed her accounting class the first time (in 1966),“ Elder said. “I didn't do any work. I came back and took her class again and got an A. She was a super lady. I don’t think she ever knew that I thought of her that way.“


Elder earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1977 from Kansas State University, and a bachelor’s in construction from KSU a year later. During that time he was inducted into Sigma Lambda Chi, the construction science honorary society. He had finally figured out which direction to take. His appointment to work with the Paralympic Committee in Atlanta was a result of his experience in the Navy. “I had been commanding officer of a Navy construction battalion in Louisiana and they (Olympic Committee) were looking for a Naval Reserve commander with construction management experience and accessibility experience,“ Elder said. “There were only two or three of us with that combination, and they selected me to fill the job in Atlanta.“ His orders forced him to miss 18 months of work at his job in Topeka as architect for the Kansas Department of Education. But Elder said it was an interesting assignment.


“Initially it was supposed to be a position assisting the Olympic Committee and the Paralympic Committee with accessibility issues,” he said. “But it got to the point where the Olympic Committee was far enough along that they felt they didn’t need the service any more. The Paralympic Committee needed the assistance.”


The Paralympics, featuring 4,000 athletes, 1,000 coaches and team staff, 1,500 officials, and nearly 15,000 volunteers, began just 10 days after the Olympic Games were completed, giving Elder and his crew precious few days to examine all venues and determine what modifications were required by ADA. The Paralympic Games are for elite athletes of the world who possess a physical disability. “Of all the athletes we had coming to town, we had many more individuals with disabilities than is generally in the population,” Elder said.


“Instead of one accessible toilet by guidelines, we may have to have three to four. We had to work up a plan to implement all of that. We built additional ramps ahead of time. I had Naval Reserve Seabees doing that for me. And we had to develop a schedule to move all of that into place.” It was a daunting task, and a challenge that Elder met with some reservations. “I had mixed emotions about my selection to begin with,” Elder said. “When they first started talking to me about it, they thought I would be able to keep my command of a Navy construction battalion in Shreveport (Louisiana) and do both jobs. But as it got closer, they determined that I would not be able to keep both jobs and that my military orders to Atlanta would take precedence. It was a tough decision to give up my command in Shreveport or go to Atlanta. I wrestled with that situation. It was one of the hardest military decisions I’ve ever had to make.”


Still, his work in Atlanta was satisfying for other reasons. “My focusing on accessibility came about partly because of my sister (Leanna Tyler), who is legally blind,” Elder said. “I’ve seen some of the struggles she has trying to get places. That and I have several very good friends, some who live quite a distance, who have to use wheelchairs to get around. I guess I was troubled by the difficulties they encountered. I developed an empathy for them that caused me to want to focus on this.”


Today, Elder realizes his appointment to Atlanta would not have materialized had it not been for his military background. “I took a leave from my state job, did that job in Atlanta, came back and moved back into my state job and the (Naval) Reserves like I’d never been gone from either place,” Elder said. “I couldn’t have done it had I been in the private sector.”


His responsibilities with the Navy have limited his community involvement. Still, Elder does what he can. He served as a youth baseball coach for six years and was on the board of directors for the Youth Baseball Association of Topeka for two years. He also volunteered as a coach for youth bowlers at Gage Center Bowl in Topeka. Elder’s experience as an architect took him from a firm in Harlingen, Texas, to Salina, and to Wichita. In the late 1970s, when he worked in Texas, the company was one of the largest school architectural firms in the state. In Wichita, Elder worked for what is now PBA Architects, a firm that primarily designs schools. He left there in 1986 to become architect for the State Department of Education. “I am responsible for ensuring that all schools in Kansas, all unified school districts, community colleges, vocational-technical schools, public and private, except the Regents schools, meet state-adopted building codes,” Elder said. “I focus on access by the disabled.”


In recent years, Elder hasn’t taken a pencil in hand and poured over a drawing. “I’ve been doing some part-time work for some architects,” he said. “I’m finding out how much I miss that. I left the business because it lost some of its appeal to me. It’s more fun now that I’ve been away from it a while.”