At first glance, George Barbuto's move from North Carolina to Knox County seems like it should have been a homecoming. After all, he had lived in eastern Ohio for most of his childhood, and he had spent several years studying and working at Kent State, near Akron.
But when Barbuto joined the Kenyon administration in the summer of 2003 as dean of residential life, he noticed some big differences from the haunts of his younger years. "I grew up in Ohio," he says, "but this area is a different world." He grew up, to be exact, in East Liverpool, on the banks of the Ohio River. (His family had moved there from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.) That area, and the area around Kent, were part of the "Rust Belt"-a region that, to Barbuto, feels much less midwestern than the agricultural communities of central Ohio.
Not that he minds. He's happy to raise his children in Knox County. And in Kenyon, he's found a place where he can leave his mark-but not too quickly. "It's a wise person who will learn the culture of the institution and then ease into a transition," he says. "By your third year, you can actually feel like you're doing something."
Now, at the beginning of his third year in the office, Barbuto has slowly begun to make some changes. He's planning for a future that might include new types of housing-for example, the proposed townhouses in the village center. He has updated the former area coordinator positions, bringing Johni Amos and Nicole Ray into the office as assistant directors of residential life. "I'm laying the groundwork for the future of this department," he explains.
Unlike many student-affairs administrators, Barbuto did not get his start as a resident assistant in college. In the late 1980s, he was a graduate student at Kent State, pursuing his master's in counseling while working in a mental health center. He became disillusioned with his course of study and, when considering what to do next, ran into a friend from years past. "She was in the higher ed program," he says, "and we started talking. So I took a course in the field. I had five years working at the mental health center, and I found that those experiences were a tremendous benefit in this field."
Barbuto's counseling background helped him, for example, in mediating such dicey situations as student judicial matters and roommate conflicts. Before becoming dean at Kenyon, he served residential-life stints at Kent State, Berea College in Kentucky, and Elon College and Pfeiffer University in North Carolina.
Those jobs lay far from his original aspirations. With his Rust-Belt upbringing and football-player build, Barbuto once hoped to emulate the life of a Pittsburgh sports legend. "I had gone to college mainly to play football," Barbuto says. "That was my big dream. I thought I was going to become the next Jack Lambert," following in the mold of the Pittsburgh Steelers star who grew up in northeastern Ohio and played football at Kent State.
An injury, coupled with a case of mononucleosis, changed everything. Barbuto dropped his gridiron dreams and got serious about school. At the same time, he worked a variety of jobs that kept him on the road. He operated a campus bus at Kent, and he drove an ice-delivery truck through Yellowstone National Park during summers in Montana. Barbuto even used his football player's frame to his advantage as a bodyguard, when he would accompany rock bands on tour throughout the east.
Traveling from Montana to Ohio and everywhere in between, Barbuto loved experiencing the country. For a time, he even dreamed of moving to California with his brother, as he says, to "sell T-shirts on the beach or something."
But those days are behind him. "I'm very content here," he remarks. He lives with his wife, Lori, and his children, thirteen-year-old Carmen and six-year-old Marcus, on Coshocton Road in Mount Vernon. His children are both active in local sports, and Lori, a nurse at Knox Community Hospital, is taking graduate courses at Otterbein University in Westerville.
"A gift I can bring," he says, "is the gift of stability."