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Cara J. Hayden and Cindy Gill


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The Petersen Center is full of life

One afternoon last fall, more than 3,000 people poured into the basketball arena at the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center. The arena was a buzz of activity, with people filling the basketball court and streaming up the aisles to find seats. The smell of popcorn drifted in the air, as staff served the snack in red-and-white cartons from old-fashioned popcorn carts. Blue and gold balloons added to the festive mood, and hundreds of celebrants wore yellow T-shirts with the motto, Building Our Future Together.

Soon, a herald of trumpets from the University of Pittsburgh Varsity Marching Band opened the celebration. The assembled students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and friends were ready to mark a major milestone—the University of Pittsburgh had surpassed the $1 billion mark in its ongoing capital campaign. “This accomplishment puts Pitt in the big leagues of fundraising, and we want to be in the big leagues of everything we do,” said Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg to the enthusiastic crowd.

It was fitting that the “Thanks a Billion” event took place in the Petersen Center, which opened in 2002. The building was made possible by John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen through $10 million in support, one of the largest gifts by individual donors in the University’s history. Since then, many other generous Pitt supporters have joined the Petersens to create a major hub of student and campus life at the center.

For instance, about 1,500 students use the center’s Baierl Student Recreation Center every day during the fall and spring semesters. It’s one of the sweetest college gyms in the country, with rows of exercise equipment, racquetball courts, martial arts practice mats, and other top-notch fitness enhancements. The Petersen also features the F. James and Carol McCarl Hall of Fame, the Willis Center for Academics, the Miller Athletics Administrative Complex, the Lignelli Practice Gym, the Stone Computer Laboratory, and lots of other places and programs that help students stay fit physically and academically, while fully engaged in campus life. The Petersen’s food court is usually packed with friends having lunch or students surfing the Web on their laptops. And hundreds use the outdoor steps and the indoor escalators to commute between upper and lower campus.

The Petersen Center brings plenty of other excitement to campus, too. It’s the site of concerts by top celebrity talent; it hosts science exhibits and University special events; its balcony tier is a great place for lunches or dinners to celebrate campus events; and, of course, it’s the home of legendary Pitt basketball. Season tickets sell out every year for the men’s team, which has consistently reached the top ranks of NCAA tournament play in recent years. On game night, the Petersen hosts the hottest party in town as 12,500 fans pour into the shimmering five-story lobby. Students wear gold “Oakland Zoo” shirts and roar P-I-T-T cheers that echo to the rafters. They rave on their cell phones: This place is amazing! The women’s team, too, attracts enthusiastic, high-energy crowds. This year, for the first time, the women played in the postseason NCAA tournament, and the Petersen Center hosted some of the nationally televised women’s games.

The center’s influence goes full-circle, through the academic year. At Freshman Convocation each fall, the Petersen welcomes all the newbies. And, each spring, the center is the site of Commencement, a major celebration with thousands of faculty, staff, students, family, and friends gathering to mark a University rite of passage. For years to come, the Petersen Center will be there in thousands of digital photos showcasing grads in their mortar boards and tassels.

The building is a testament—in glass, and steel, and stone—to the vast and enduring impact the capital campaign is having on people’s lives and the life of the campus.


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