13:00 PM

Whispering Bench Holds Deep Meaning

By Christine Vaughan

Located in the center of campus, a unique and symbolic concrete bench honors the indelible impact of President Karen Haynes and First Gentleman Jim Mickelson. The art installation, built into the northwest-facing hillside along Forum Plaza, is known as a whispering bench.

At the end of June, following 15.5 years of leadership as the university’s third president, Haynes will retire with her husband Jim Mickelson, founding director of ACE Scholars Services, CSUSM’s innovative program for former foster youth.

“We are honored by this special tribute to our legacies, a tribute that symbolically allows us to forever be part of a campus that means so much to us,” Haynes said at a small reception and ceremonial ribbon cutting on June 14.

While the concept of a whispering bench is not new, the recently unveiled bench at CSUSM is one of only a handful of whispering benches worldwide. But the bench’s signature acoustical phenomena, which can carry even a faint whisper from one end to the other, was initially a delightful fluke.

“I wanted the design for the bench to reflect the elegance and class of President Haynes and the magic of Jim Mickelson,” artist Fritzie Urquhart said.

The whispering bench is the fifth art installation designed by Urquhart on campus. Her first piece, a colorful acrylic titled “Pieces of the Puzzle,” hangs in the lobby of the president’s office. Her outdoor pieces include “Noodle Doddle” in front of the Center for Children and Families, “Do Re Mi” located in Gonzalez Grove, and “Wind Song” on the lawn adjacent to the University Bookstore.

While early planning began in November, construction took only four weeks. The whispering bench is located in the true center of campus, perfectly aligned from the Twin Oaks Valley Road and Barham Drive corner of campus through the heart to the university center.

From the inner edge of the seat, the curved bench is exactly 15.5 feet in diameter, representing the 15½ years of Haynes’ presidency at CSUSM. The installation is flanked by purple flowers, Haynes’ favorite color.

“There is a lot of folklore literally built into this bench,” said Pat Simpson, who was part of the planning, design and construction team that brought the idea to life.

The 15-ton concrete bench features specks of double-sided mirror pieces, a nod to Haynes’ glitz and glamour, as well as a reference to her police code name, “Sparky.” Encased in the bench are 62 quarters, totaling $15.50, each minted in the years of Haynes’ presidency from 2004 to 2019. The quarters were initially used to help level the bench during its construction.

Etched into the bench is a line of poetry written by Haynes in 1986 to her soon-to-be husband, Mickelson. That line – “Ahead of us lies anything we choose - constrained only by our vision.” – was later part of the couple’s marriage vows.

The curvature of the bench, which provides the necessary architecture for its acoustics, is in a “C” shape, standing for campus, community, collaboration and communication – the steadfast pillars of Haynes’ leadership.

“As our time at CSUSM winds down, we look forward to returning to campus to enjoy this bench and quietly reflect on our time here and everything that makes it such a special place,” Mickelson said.

The bench was privately funded by Jan and Esther Stearns, Jack and Caroline Raymond, Esther Calac-Heller, Nathaniel and Dean Keifer-Wheals and the Foundation Board of Directors.

Media Contact

Christine Vaughan, Director of Communications

cvaughan@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-4409