The center of attention

By Gus Bode

The Recreation Center has kept the community active for more than 25 years

It’s the hottest place to hang out in Carbondale . . . at 5:25 a.m.

The pale, gray sky is brushed with faint strokes of clouds. The birds are chirping. The day is beginning to stir. So is the Recreation Center.


More than 20 people patiently wait outside to enter the facility on a humid May morning. Most are dressed in typical gym attire – some T-shirts or sweatshirts, shorts or sweatpants and running shoes. Others have their workout clothes at their side. It’s still early, so conversation is short and at an inaudible murmur. The small group simply stares ahead and anxiously awaits its opportunity to get the day going.

Inside, morning custodian Kate DeToy is preparing the center for its busy day. She said she arrives each day at 5 a.m. and has immediate tasks waiting for her. These include switching on lights and TVs and bringing in newspapers.

At 5:30 a.m., DeToy turns the key to the glass door at the north entrance. This is the signal. The day begins.

Members of the University’s swimming team file over to their respective locker rooms on either side of the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Some report to the pool to run drills. Others go to the weight room or to the fitness room to wake up their dormant muscles.

Army ROTC members, the most lively patrons of the Recreation Center at this time, stroll to the basketball courts on the northwest corner of the facility. Some do stretching exercises; others sit on the tan hardwood floor, loudly chatting as they wait to begin their group workout.

The rest of the Recreation Center, except for the employee positions, is entirely occupied by older adults. Two gentlemen walk on the navy blue lower level track. One woman and two men jog on the upper track, directly above its lower level counterpart. Another woman fires up the first treadmill of the day at 5:45 a.m. on the second floor next to the track.

Eleven people, all adults, occupy the aerobics room on the lower level across from the equipment desk by 5:30 a.m. Two exercise bicycles, five StairMasters and four treadmills are being used.


At 5:53 a.m., the first young person not a member of a practicing team arrives. Lukas Chudyba, a junior in marketing, plays the first racquetball game of the day after he jogs a mile on the upper level track. Chudyba said he normally doesn’t come to the Recreation Center this early, but he had to wake up early to study for a test.

“This is the earliest I’ve ever been here,” Chudyba said. “I just needed to blow off some steam. Classes are killing me, and I had to get up anyway.”

The number of people multiplies by the minute. The overall mood is calm and quiet as sleepy faces continue to trudge through the entrances on either side. By 6 a.m., more than 50 early risers are at the Recreation Center.

Student Work Supervisor Susie Baker said many people come in the early morning hours to make sure they are able to comfortably exercise.

“A lot of times, people like certain treadmills,” Baker said. “They’re a little more difficult to get in the busiest times. This early, people can choose from whatever equipment they want.”

The morning also gives Recreation Center employees the chance to finish tasks they could never do in the afternoon. DeToy said the majority of the facility’s cleaning is done in the early morning. There is no overnight custodial shift, so the morning workers have to pick up the slack.

“We get the major cleaning of the bathrooms and hallways and do most of the mopping in the morning,” DeToy said. “You only see these orange cones at this time. If we mopped at night when it’s busy, we’d have some people slipping around.”

The Recreation Center is fully operational from the moment its doors open at 5:30 a.m. Bill McMinn, the facility’s director, said the center opens at that time Monday through Friday, even during University breaks. People can also utilize the facility after 10 a.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays.

“There are enough students and faculty and staff that still want to get in early,” McMinn said. “You get in a routine and you don’t want to mess it up from a workout perspective. I know I don’t.”

That workout perspective is the driving force of the Recreation Center, which has been open since 1977. The facility is equipped for all kinds of physical activities. From racquetball courts to basketball courts, strength training to kayak training and boxing lessons to climbing lessons, the center offers an eye-popping selection of physically stimulating activities.

However, the Recreation Center is more than just a place to work out. The facility’s base camp rents outdoor equipment such as tents, sleeping bags and cooking accessories. Four computers with Internet access overlook the swimming pool from the top level. Lessons in yoga, dancing and fencing are also available.

The center also oversees 22 satellite facilities. The campus beach, Frisbee golf course, roller hockey facility and the lighted playfields on South Illinois Avenue are all controlled by the Recreation Center.

McMinn said people are incorrect when they think of the Recreation Center as one building. The facility is involved with the community in separate sites with its satellite facilities. That far-reaching involvement depends on the students, he said.

“We get students to come forward with ideas for new programs,” McMinn said. “There was a young man who came to us to start a roller hockey club about 12 years ago. Now we’ve got over 150 students in that club. We are constantly analyzing the programs every year to see where we’re at and to see if we have interest for new programs.”

There’s plenty of interest in the Recreation Center itself. According to a report conducted by the office of intramural-recreational sports, the facility averaged 2,130 people per day in April 2002. McMinn said he believes this April had a slightly larger average. He also said on days when the Recreation Center plays host to special events such as track or swim meets, the number of people per day can get up to 4,000.

McMinn said that figure is comparable to what the University of Illinois’ recreational center gets on its busiest days. That gives him confidence that Carbondale’s facility can compete with the best.

“We’ve got an excellent facility,” McMinn said. “It probably has one of the best reputations in the country. Compared to Illinois, we’ve got a little smaller enrollment. But, we can turn out the same amount of people at our center.”

Attracting people in the early morning hours is not a problem in Carbondale. The steady flow of newcomers continues until around 6:30 a.m. By that time, the flow decreases and there are less people in the facility than when the doors opened. By 7 a.m., the facility is down to around 35 patrons.

That trend continues through most of the morning hours at the Recreation Center. Baker said once classes begin, the building hits a calm spell. She said usually no more than 50 people at a time occupy the facility until noon.

“This place really calms down around 8,” Baker said. “Classes have started, so the faculty and students are both busy. I’d say we have more students than faculty in here until about noon, but it’s still pretty dead.”

McMinn said the Recreation Center tends to pick up in the late morning and early afternoon hours because most people are on their lunch breaks. The director is no stranger to that trend. Covered in sweat, he exits the weight room during his lunch hour at 12:45 p.m.

“I told you I work out here, too,” McMinn said with a smile.

The rate of increase for Recreation Center patrons generally climbs as the afternoon continues. At 1 p.m., the facility is definitely more active than in the morning hours. Each of the racquetball courts in the multi-purpose sport courts is occupied. Three basketball games are being played at the courts in the center of the lower level track. The facility is bustling, mostly with students.

Costas Kathidjiotis, a graduate student employee at the equipment desk, said the number of people at the center climbs slowly throughout most of the afternoon.

However, that climb rapidly increases as the hours tick by, and another wave rolls in.

“At 5 we get very busy,” Kathidjiotis said. “We get faculty and students, and we also get people from the area who are members of the Rec. Families like to come in, too.”

At 5 p.m., the Recreation Center is full of activity. Most noticeable is the swarm of people, mostly students, that is crawling through the building.

However, there are more unavoidable observations. Dance music blares on the basketball courts, where an aerobics class has begun. On the opposite end, where the walls are so thick that the music can’t be heard, lifeguard training is being taught in the pool.

The fun continues until 8 p.m., which is the summer semester’s closing time. Fencing instruction, martial arts practice and numerous games of basketball and racquetball continue until the announcement:”The Rec Center is now closing. Please exit the building.”

The last patrons, all of whom are students, leave 15 minutes after closing time. Night custodian John Howell locks the door behind them.

Howell, who has worked as a custodian at the University for 15 years, has been employed at the Recreation Center since September 2002. He said he’s enjoyed his time working there, but has only one regret.

“I wish I’d worked here all 15 years,” Howell said.

Reporter Burke Wasson can be reached at [email protected]