For the last two years, Thomas Aquinas College students have watched eagerly as the long-awaited Pope St. John Paul II Athletic Center took shape on the southwest corner of the California campus. This past Sunday, their waiting paid off as the Athletic Center — all but complete, save for a few finishing touches — had a “soft” opening for student use, with a formal grand opening and dedication planned for the fall.

“The satisfaction of knowing this would happen for years, and it’s finally happening, is amazing,” said sophomore Peter Bockrath. “I loved seeing how many people came out to play basketball and volleyball. I’m looking forward to more in the future.”

Made possible by a $15 million grant from the Fritz B. Burns Foundation of Los Angeles, the 17,000-square-foot Pope St. John Paul II Athletic Center is easily recognized by its four-story clock tower, loosely modeled after the one in Santa Barbara’s historic City Hall. The tower contains two 31-foot-high scaling walls and a 13-foot-high bouldering wall — which were put to early and enthusiastic use at Sunday’s opening. 

Outside the Athletic Center, the six-lane, 25-yard waveless lap pool awaits its first swimmers, pending county certification. The outdoor tennis and basketball courts still require a finish coat, but the newly installed baseball and soccer fields are complete, along with their bleacher seating. Facing the building’s arched vestibule, the new campus picnic area will host its first College Barbeque later this spring. Yet arguably the most important detail remains to be put in place — a statue of the building’s patron, Pope St. John Paul II, which will soon be installed in a niche beside the front entryway at the base of the clock tower.

The architect for the Pope St. John Paul II Athletic Center was Anthony Grumbine (’00), principal at the Santa Barbara office of Harrison Design, an alumnus of the College, and the father of three current students. “I think back almost 25 years ago, to my days at TAC, and remember playing basketball with then-president Thomas Dillon, who used to tell us that ‘one day there will be a great gym here at TAC, with gorgeous wood floors,’” Mr. Grumbine recalls. “What a privilege it is to be part of making that dream a reality!” RCI Builders of Thousand Oaks served as the contractor for the construction project, which the College’s vice president for operations, Mark Kretschmer, oversaw. Director of Student Services Scott Benigar will manage the day-to-day operations of the facility.

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