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COO David F. Harnage Reflects on Helping Five Presidents Build the Old Dominion University Campus

By Philip Walzer

It was a stupid question.

Just as you don't ask a parent which child is her favorite, you definitely don't ask David Harnage, Old Dominion University's chief operating officer, what's his favorite building on campus.

"Every one of them I ever built," he responded with trademark dryness and brevity. "If it wasn't my favorite, I wouldn't have built it."

Harnage, who has been at Old Dominion for 21 of the last 32 years, will retire at the end of June. He developed a reputation as the University's master builder, overseeing construction of 17 buildings - from the Virginia Beach Center in 1999 to the Education Building this year.

"I'm fortunate that a lot of skilled architects have humored me and allowed me to be part of the process," he said.

Harnage is known for sweating what others might consider the small stuff:

"I believe in spending a lot of time on buildings - how do the materials work together, how does it fit into the campus, the shape of the buildings, the glass you use, the finishes inside the building.... All of these ingredients go together to make a successful building."

Old Dominion's president, John R. Broderick, said: "David was the heart, soul and architect for the way our campus looks today. His vision is one of the reasons why students elected to come here in record numbers and why faculty and staff appreciate our home-away-from-home feel."

Former President James Koch called him "one of the most influential people in the University's history."

Deb Swiecinski, the associate vice president for financial services, has worked for or with Harnage for almost two decades. "It sometimes seems that he has a rough exterior," she said, "but deep down he cares about people and will extend himself in any way to help them."

That includes visiting employees in the hospital and attending funerals of their relatives. "He does little random acts of kindness without seeking attention for them," said Earl Nance, the university counsel.

Interviewing Harnage about his career doesn't take long. He prefers not to talk about himself.

He's more eager to discuss the five Old Dominion presidents, from Joseph Marchello to Broderick, for whom he's worked - and learned. "The day I walked onto this campus," Harnage said, "I was given the opportunity to work on interesting, complicated, important tasks by people who showed a lot of trust and care for me."

And he's downright talkative about Old Dominion's employees, whose loyalty and devotion continue to impress him:

"The people here are truly dedicated and care for the university a lot. It sometimes amazes me how they bond together and rise to any challenge."

Harnage left Old Dominion as vice president for administration and finance in 2000 for other ventures, first in higher education and then in business. He came back in 2011 as chief operating officer.

"ODU is the only university in the country I would have considered," he said. "One of the things that makes this a great place is that an individual can make a difference here."

Harnage also is a hard worker. "I used to think I worked long days, but I'd come in and Dave would already be there," Koch said. "Sometimes I'd leave, and he'd still be there."

Broderick noted that Harnage wasn't just the building guy: "His leadership in technology development, strategic planning and budgeting will remain key ingredients to ODU's success long after he has retired."

Harnage's contributions in information technology were honored in 2009 when Old Dominion's IT hub was renamed the David F. Harnage Computer and Data Center.

In Broderick's campus email announcing Harnage's retirement, he wrote: "He arranged one of the best deals in Old Dominion's history many years ago, when he secured a $7 million IBM supercomputer - for free."

Which displays another of Harnage's skills: He's a savvy bargainer.

"He can negotiate better than anyone," Nance said. "I never want to sell him a car because I'd probably have to pay him to take it."

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