David Letterman's mother Dorothy Mengering, left, smiles proudly while Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora announces the university will name a new campus building after her son.
On Sept. 7, the Letterman name will appear on a new campus landmark, when Ball State dedicates its just-completed, $21 million communication and media building in the entertainer's honor. The Ball State Board of Trustees authorized that recognition unanimously during a special meeting July 30 at the university's downtown Indianapolis Center.
"Millions of people across the country know of Ball State because of David Letterman's frequent references to his alma mater on 'Late Night' and 'The Late Show.' It is entirely fitting that the university should respond in kind with this public demonstration of our admiration and respect for such an accomplished and loyal alumnus," said Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora. "It's also appropriate that we seek to recognize Dave as a great role model for our students, not only in terms of his professional success, but also his generous establishment and support of the Letterman Scholarships.
"By naming our cutting-edge communication and media building in honor of David Letterman, we hope to provide another, somewhat more visible example of his inspirational commitment to Ball State."
Since 1985, Letterman has funded annual scholarships for telecommunications students who submit a project - typical entries range from screenplays and music videos to short films and storyboards - in order to qualify for one of the $10,000, $5,000 or $3,333 awards.
Both Letterman and his mother, Dorothy Mengering — who still resides near Dave's hometown of Indianapolis — are expected to participate in the formal dedication ceremonies for the Letterman building, which are set for 4 p.m. Sept. 7. Mengering also was on hand for the special public board meeting and announcement.
"I am proud to have been a student at Ball State and I'm deeply honored to have this recognition for me and my family," said Letterman.
The university's newest state-of-the-art teaching and learning facility completes an impressive, three-building communications complex supporting three departments — communication studies, journalism and telecommunications — as well as the Center for Information and Communication Sciences (CICS) and the Center for Media Design (CMD).
Letterman was a telecommunications major during his years on campus. When Darrell Wible, one of Letterman's professors, established the student-run radio station WCRD-FM in the 1980s, he sought Letterman's support. Over the years Letterman has provided substantial assistance, most recently helping the students relocate their transmitting tower. The still-broadcasting campus radio station will be among the occupants of the new building, as well.
Next stop, Nashville
Begun in February 2005, the new building encloses some 75,000 square feet of classroom, studio and faculty office space, much of it reflecting the latest developments in modern instructional building design, materials and construction — with a variety of special features incorporated to address some of its peculiar needs.
For example, to reduce sound infiltration the building's recording and broadcast studios are built as rooms within rooms, their floors floating on pucks of neoprene to help dampen internal and external vibrations. Separate air duct systems also guard against noise being transferred from one room to another, while special Lucite diffuser panels allow persons to see in or out of studios and control rooms, but do not give hard sound reflections like glass.
At the same time, the use of materials like bamboo wood for many doors and floors within the building not only enhance its acoustic qualities, but also help it to qualify for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification as a high-performance green building in terms of sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. Because bamboo trees grow to maturity in just six years, as opposed to 60 years for oak trees, bamboo is considered a renewable resource.
Also during construction, 85 percent of scrap and waste material were redirected for recycling.
The building offers students technology resources 24 hours a day that are rarely made available to undergraduates… if they can be found on other college campuses, at all. These include a $1 million post-production studio, a surround sound recording and editing suite, and a hi-definition and surround sound playback studio. Access to this equipment will make graduates highly marketable by giving them experience with the same equipment found in New York and Hollywood studios.
"You'd have to go to Nashville, Tenn., to find the next nearest post-production facility with the resources we have here," said Stan Sollars, telecommunications department instructor, marveling at the latest DigiDesign sound boards and other sophisticated equipment wired together throughout the building by more than 14 miles of audio, video and data cables. "And it's all available to Ball State students!"
After earning his Ball State diploma, Letterman worked as an anchor and weatherman for WTHR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, before departing — sans paying job — for California in 1975. Eventually landing work as a writer for several then-popular sitcoms like "Good Times," he also did occasional stand-up routines at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, finally catching the attention of a representative from NBC's "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.
By 1978, after a number of well-received guest appearances on the show, Letterman was named permanent guest host for the legendary Carson, whom he today calls his mentor.
On Feb. 1, 1982, NBC premiered "Late Night with David Letterman," giving the Ball State favorite son his own national spotlight immediately following Carson's broadcast. With signature features including a nightly Top Ten List, as well as Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks and Viewer Mail, "Late Night" became an almost immediate hit with a younger audience than normally watched "The Tonight Show."
Letterman moved to CBS 11 years later to host "The Late Show," a program that continues to deliver — in the eyes of television critics and casual viewers alike — some of the most inventive and imaginative comedy to be found in any medium today. To date, Letterman's late night programs have garnered 97 Emmy nominations and won 16 of the awards for variety, music and comedy programs.
In 1992, "The Late Show with David Letterman" also was recognized with a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for, as the Peabody judges wrote in their citation, "taking one of televisions most conventional forms, the talk show, and infusing it with freshness and imagination."
For years, Letterman and his cohorts — first on "Late Night" and more recently "The Late Show" — have joked about the 1970 graduate's ongoing relationship with Ball State, and why the university hadn't already named a building or other major structure for the nationally known celebrity.
Letterman staffers at one point even "enhanced" a photograph of a large spectator bowl purported to be Scheumann Stadium on the Muncie campus, inserting their boss' name in an attempt to persuade university leaders to rename Ball State's newly remodeled football venue that reopens this fall after a $13 million renovation and expansion project. Ever since, humorous references to "Dave Letterman Stadium" have been part of the informal campus lexicon among students, faculty and alumni.
Letterman's connection to Ball State has been recalled in a number of other ways during his more than 25 years on the air, including in 2000 a nationally televised pep talk to the Cardinals football team — then mired in an extended losing streak — by NBA Hall-of-Famer Ervin "Magic" Johnson. When the team soon afterward defeated the Miami University Red Hawks to end the skid, Letterman quickly took credit for inviting Johnson and helping to stage the comeback (the team won its next three games in a row).
A week later on "The Late Show," Al Rent, the university's director of relationship marketing and community relations, presented a game ball to his Ball State classmate, who recalled the late President Gerald Ford (referring to Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon) by proclaiming, "Our long national nightmare is over…"
In May 2001, a group of Ball State students also appeared on "The Late Show" in a taped feature presenting the "Top Ten Good Things About Having a Degree From Ball State University." Later the same year, "Late Show" stage manager and occasional on-camera personality Biff Henderson visited campus to participate in homecoming festivities — including the annual Bed Race down Riverside Avenue — for a special segment of "Biff Henderson's America."
While on campus Henderson also interviewed then-university president Blaine Brownell about Ball State's "funniest graduate," who (to Dave's mocked chagrin) turned out to be Jim Davis, creator of the popular cartoon strip "Garfield."
On a slightly more serious note, more than 10,000 Ball State students and staff signed an enormous "get well" card for Letterman after his heart bypass surgery in 2000. Seven students carried the campus community's good wishes to New York and delivered them via Letterman's colleague, Bryant Gumbel, during a live broadcast of CBS' "The Early Show."
The message included another Top Ten list of the reasons why Ball State students were "glad he didn't die." No. 1 was Letterman has yet to divulge where students may pick up the old couch he's promised for their new student center. Students remain hopeful: extensive renovations of Pittenger Student Center start later this year.