Dennis Eck graduated from the University of Montana nearly 50 years ago, and he still loves the view from the Oval of Main Hall and the M on Mount Sentinel.
Several years ago, Eck wandered into the Liberal Arts Building, his old stomping grounds as a political science and history major.
"As you walked in, you felt like you were walking back in time," Eck said Tuesday. "Nothing had changed. Floors. Walls. Lights. They probably still had the same chalkboards as when I was there."
Since that walk across campus, quite a lot is changing.
Over the last three years, Dennis and Gretchen Eck have committed a total of $8.3 million to the building, with $6.2 million donated to date, according to UM.
The funds have been used to renovate in phases three floors of the main academic corridor of the Liberal Arts Building and are bringing the latest technological tools to the faculty and thousands of students who take more than 600 classes in 30 classrooms in that structure.
The donations are not only a gift to Montana, they're also a push from Dennis of Wolf Point, and Gretchen, of Butte, to strengthen the relationship people have with an institution of higher education. These days, people's beliefs in institutions — "church, politics, whatever" — are fractured, and their respect for these entities is declining, Dennis Eck said.
"And we're so busy watching them disintegrate that nobody is dealing with the issue of, how do you restore them? And how do you restore the belief in them? Then, we can go back to being grounded again," Eck said.
For him and his wife, education is the primary vehicle to help people get ahead, especially education fueled by the power of technology.
"Education is really the backbone of almost any progress that anybody is going to make," Dennis Eck said.
And technology allows education to reach people who live far from the physical institution, places like Wolf Point, near the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
In September, the Montana Board of Regents will take up naming the Academic Hall of the Liberal Arts Building the Dennis and Gretchen Eck Hall. And UM officials are crossing their fingers that the new grand entrance that opens up the building to the Oval will be ready in time to celebrate during homecoming.
Tuesday, Dean Chris Comer and the UM Foundation's Kate Stober and Marci Bozeman offered a tour of the construction that's underway and one of the new classrooms that will be in session soon. School starts next week, and a small portion of students will be in temporary classrooms for three or four weeks, but the noisy parts of the construction should be done by the time lectures begin.
The new space will offer three new lounges, possibly with a coffee shop and docking stations, so students have a place to be comfortable in the building, Comer said. In the past, students haven't liked to hang out in the Liberal Arts Building after class, yet he said much learning takes place between classes in those shared spaces.
"It's an integral part of the plan to make the spaces better educationally because so many students take courses here," Comer said.
The building with classrooms that used to be either too hot or too cold will now offer even temperatures and be safer and greener. Some classrooms offer 21st technology and equipment, with tablets mounted on classroom walls that allow faculty or students to control multimedia features in the room.
Built in 1953, the Liberal Arts Building is shaped from above like the letter E, and the academic corridor being renovated is the long edge of the letter. Comer said he hopes that in the future, the shorter edges where faculty work can be redone one at a time as well.
An auditorium that seats 125 has been remodeled in the basement, and it has more natural light and an accessible elevator, and it will also have audio/visual features. Over the next two summers, the renovation will upgrade 11 classrooms in the academic hall, according to UM.
"The theme of this renovation is 'respect the past, but look to the future,'" Comer said.
Eck has a passion for using technology to connect teachers and learners around the world, including those in remote areas, and instructors at UM have already linked to people located in Europe and Japan.
"It gives us a whole new array of tools to use," Comer said.
Eck said the project demonstrates UM can upgrade its older buildings without tearing them down, and he hopes other donors and politicians will be moved to support the university.
"Gretchen and I are proud to have our name associated with a project that will impact students every day and hope to inspire other donors and the state to support higher education," Eck said in a statement.
A while back, the Ecks had wanted the state to pick up some of the costs of renovating the building, such as an upgraded electrical system. The state budget was tight this year, though, and the couple is now footing the bill for some of those improvements as well.
"It's a testament to his commitment to the university that he said, 'Well, I'm going to keep helping,'" Comer said.
Eck said he's pleased to help Montana because people here are diligent and work hard, and the efforts are infectious. He's a retail industry executive who has served as executive vice president for Jewel Companies, Inc., and in other leadership positions with The Vons Companies, Cole Myer, and Ulta Salon Cosmetics & Fragrance, according to UM; he currently sits on the board of Ulta Beauty and is the principal of DKE Retail Studies.
Eck said his career has been spent going into troubled companies and helping them turn around, and he does so by listening to the ideas of the people on the ground. He wants to share his success.
"I had a lot of good things happen to me, and I was able to have the money to be able to give something back," said Eck, who now lives in Nevada and California.
He challenged others to give, too, and he said people can contribute anything they receive when they have enough of it. He said thousands of people could help make Missoula a better place if they gave of themselves.
"It's not just money. It's anything that you can pass along that has value," Eck said.
Some politicians and other leaders have been more inclined to see the value of education in areas such as engineering or medical occupations than in majors such as political science and history.
But Eck parlayed his major, background and smarts into a lucrative career in business, and he said the skills he learned to think critically, analyze and act served him well in business.
"Liberal arts should quit selling itself short," Eck said.
In fact, Dean Comer said Eck is one of many varied liberal arts graduates he witnesses who end up as CEOs and vice presidents of corporations.
"He's a great example of a phenomenon I see all the time," Comer said.
The College of Arts and Sciences is the largest one at UM with 23 departments, and students from other programs take foundational courses in the Liberal Arts Building. The sciences have received some support, and Comer said the current construction bolsters a special feature of the flagship.
"This is one in the heart of the humanities, and to me, that's important. All parts of the college need good facilities," Comer said.
Eck, who worked in Australia, said the true test of success for him will an experience he envisions that links learning across continents in a renovated hall at UM. Students in Wolf Point will be able to listen in from home.
"I do have an idea that someday, I'm going to walk into that classroom, and there's going to be a simultaneous lecture going on between New South Wales and Montana about Native American and aboriginal studies." Eck said. "Because we've built the technology to do that."