Junior Popplewell – Muncie Ivy Tech Community College
- Written by: Neil Cote
- Produced by: Zachary Brann & Cherie Scott
- Estimated reading time: 5 mins
A rectangular brown and beige, two-story concrete structure that once housed the Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, the building really was yesterday’s news. It had stood vacant since 2000, save for break-ins. Years later when the newspaper’s owners donated it to Ivy Tech Community College, it was one very distressed property.
“Just a rundown eyesore with a parking lot that hadn’t been maintained,” recalls Junior Popplewell, who had a big hand in the demolition and rebuild. “The ugliest building in the downtown.”
As the college’s executive director of planning and facilities as well as an alumnus, Popplewell mulled options with the executive team. The initial approach was to renovate the building, but an architect advised how the taxpayers’ money would be better spent by starting from scratch. Ivy Tech having committed $43 million to capital projects during the middle and late 2010s, it devoted around $15 million to tearing down the boarded-up newspaper plant in 2018 and replacing it with what’s now one of the college’s flagship buildings.
One year later, from the rubble of the Star Press, rose what’s known as the George & Frances Ball Building. On the first floor of this modern and glassy facility named after the patriarch and matriarch of a prominent Indiana family, there’s Chesterfield’s Café, a casual soup-and-sandwiches restaurant run by staff and students from Ivy Tech’s renowned culinary department.
Adjacent is a culinary lab with 16 cooking stations and walk-in freezers. The second and third floors host administrative personnel and student services.
“What was the ugliest building is now the most beautiful,” Popplewell tells Blueprint in January. “How it’s benefited the downtown’s redevelopment.”
Call him a renaissance man
Popplewell’s role in this renaissance was to be on site most days and weigh in on whatever was necessary. He’d interact with architects and engineers, host weekly meetings and ensure the project proceeded to the college’s satisfaction. However, it wasn’t the only big-ticket item on his agenda.
Blocks away, another donated structure has been refashioned into the John and Janice Fisher Building. The first floor includes a conference center, classrooms, faculty suites and student services. The fourth floor has been renovated for nursing, surgery, physical therapy and sonography labs and classrooms.
On the lower level, a former parking garage has been replaced with, among other attractions, a state-of-the art criminology lab and shooting range where students train for law enforcement and current police enhance their skills. The lab outfitted with cameras, screens and audio, it’s possible to assess one’s performance under simulated gunfire.
“It’s as close as you can come to duplicating a real-life crime scene with all kinds of scenarios—hostages, robberies, shootouts,” Popplewell says. “Our friends in law enforcement say it’s been very helpful for training.”
Then a few miles away, in southern Muncie, there’s the Cowan Building which has been outfitted for all kinds of vocational and technical education: welding, robotics, electrical motors, HVAC, automotive and other areas. Among the factors that Popplewell says make this facility unique is a large open lab where students in different disciplines can mingle.
It’s also much appreciated by companies in Indiana and elsewhere. There’s a shortage of young talent in all kinds of trades, Popplewell says, and Ivy Tech is training students of modest means to fill vacancies in such in-demand industries as nursing, infotech, healthcare, construction and trucking. It also provides continuing education and certifications.
“A win-win for everybody,” he says. “If a factory needs its people to learn the ABCs, we let them use our facilities for certification. They also can hire our graduates.”
Wired from the start
Popplewell can vouch for the value of an Ivy Tech degree or vo-tech education in general. A native Indianan, he and the school were an ideal match following his high school graduation in 1976.
“As a kid I thought I’d be an electrician,” he says. “I was amazed at electrical things, took them apart and put them back together, and took electronics courses in high school.”
After graduation he worked in a hardware store that sold appliances, honed his skills with heating and cooling courses at Ivy Tech, and repaired ovens, furnaces, air conditioners and just about anything wired. But when the hardware store gave up its appliance division, Popplewell had to move on.
Next came a 10-year stretch with a residential contractor and Popplewell back in his element, maintaining appliances and rewiring houses. Needing another challenge, he went to a contractor with commercial clientele, ascending to sales manager over the course of 20 years but never passing up the chance to get his hands dirty.
He had even more chances to do so when he was maintenance director for the Randolph Central School Corp., in Winchester, Indiana, for a few years. Then came jobs in Muncie for Popplewell and wife Angie: she as operational director at Ball State University and Popplewell returning to Ivy Tech.
In a sense, he never really left since earning his degree in heating and cooling—nowadays it’s called HVAC. Off and on, he’s juggled his other jobs with being an adjunct instructor at his alma mater. But he says it’s great to have been a full-timer since 2016.
“It’s so gratifying for me to be at our graduation ceremony and see a student get a degree and then a well-paying job,” he says. “Though I’m not teaching anymore, my facility role makes me part of their success.”
Though Popplewell’s 65, he’s not thinking about retirement.
“As long as my health holds up and they put up with me, I’ve no magical date to call it quits,” he says. “I also don’t have to crawl through cellars and attics anymore. My work today is more mental than physical.”
Except when he’s home. Seems he just can’t put away the tools.
“Just built a 40-by-60-foot barn,” Popplewell says. “OK, I didn’t build it all by myself, but I did much of it and all of the wiring.”
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