CLEMSON – Ben Rook, the owner of Design Strategies LLC in Greenville, has spent his career working on many different solutions to one question: “How can we make that happen?”

He and his wife, Becca, are both alumni of Clemson University.

Together, the Rooks make things happen in many arenas: education, architecture, business and community-centered philanthropy.

At Clemson, their latest gift of $100,000 will provide opportunities for the architecture students of today and tomorrow by funding an endowment created in the name of their mentor and friend, George C. Means Jr.

Becca and Ben Rook

Longtime donors Ben and Becca Rook of Greenville have made a naming gift to the Architecture + Health program at Clemson University, which will name the studio for founder George C. Means Jr. Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Means established a health-focused studio in the School of Architecture at Clemson that has grown into today’s graduate program in Architecture + Health. And now, as the program celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Architecture + Health studio will officially carry the name of George C. Means Jr.

“He was the classic professor,” Ben Rook said. “Whatever you needed, he was there. He was just a special person.”

Rook said when he first came to Clemson from Newberry, South Carolina, he had no idea what architecture really was. “I knew I liked making art and I liked building treehouses.”

Means, he said, had a gift at molding young people into “what they would be, even when they didn’t know what they could be.”

Clemson years

Ben Rook graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree at Clemson in ’68 and returned as a master’s student, earning his degree in ’74. Means made sure Rook could learn what he most wanted to explore in architecture – the practice of considering function along with aesthetics. Through arrangements Means made, Rook was able spend two summers at the University of California, Berkeley, where he could absorb some cutting-edge ideas about programming to supplement all he was learning at Clemson with Means.

George C. Means Jr. (1920-2005)

George C. Means Jr. (1920-2005)

“George just sort of opened the doors,” he said.

In between degrees, Ben met Becca while working in Charlotte, and after a long courtship they married. George Means was their best man.

For a few years, Ben taught full-time at Clemson and served as the assistant campus planner. Becca educated younger students in Anderson and earned a master’s degree in education at Clemson. Ben said he “bounced around all over, learning different things” in those years. Each time he came back, he shared the new ideas with Means, and they incorporated many into the Health Facilities Planning and Design Studio.

The newlywed Rooks lived for a time at Ashtabula, the historic home in Pendleton, as its caretakers.

“We had the kitchen and a couple bedrooms upstairs, but that was it,” Becca said.

The grand old house became the site of faculty and student meetings. And when the house was quiet and no one was there for Sunday tours, they could open a door and ramble through older areas that were closed off. “It was really great,” she recalled.

Catalyst

Ben Rook went to work for Odell Associates and started its Greenville office before later moving with his family to Charlotte, where the firm was based.

At Odell, he started a revolutionary program called Catalyst. When a client had a great idea and didn’t know how to make the architectural concept become a reality, the firm could address any voids and help pull the project together. Beyond the design of buildings, the firm assisted with financial planning, interactions with government and other logistics. “We started that program everywhere, and it just took off,” he said.

Rook headed to Harvard to increase his knowledge about “the financial piece” and earned a master’s degree in urban design and real estate development.

Before his retirement from Odell, Rook had risen to its chairman and CEO.

Home again

Ben Rook thought about spending his later years in California, enjoying golf and the lively art scene. Instead, he was drawn back to Greenville by his wife, a house, and the city’s “can-do” spirit.

Becca wanted to finish raising their daughters, Kelly and Jennifer, somewhere that wasn’t so far away. Both children had been born in Greenville, and it felt like home.

Ben couldn’t resist “the only house I’ve ever designed in my life.” Years before, he had created it for a client after designing his company’s headquarters. One day the client’s son called, looking for someone to love the house as much as he dad did. He asked Ben to consider coming back to Greenville. “We bought the house. Poof! And we were back,” he said.

Greenville had a draw of its own. The Rooks had witnessed seeds of change during the 1970s, and its renaissance was taking root over time. Early on, the city had consulted visionary thinkers, urban designer Lawrence Halprin and urban economist Donald Zuchelli, to reimagine Main Street and the downtown. Clemson architecture professors and students were not only aware of these early efforts, they were involved. Beyond that, the city has a culture of determined optimism that appeals to the Rooks.

“Both of us were brought up in families that were community-focused,” Ben said. “All through my life –and really all of the firms that I have been with – have been incredibly community-focused in the sense of leaving a place a better place.”

New directions

Ben Rook founded a new firm, Design Strategies LLC, and fulfilled a dream of locating his office in a “large, impressive historical space,” the Old Greenville County Courthouse Building on Main Street.

Rook became active in the Urban League, the chamber of commerce, Artisphere, community foundations and more. “All of these things we get very interested in,” he said.

Rook was among the team of business and civic leaders who helped establish the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, CU-ICAR. He worked on the master plan for the advanced-technology research campus in Greenville and designed its first building.

More recently, his firm was involved in the creation of the Cancer Survivors Park in downtown Greenville, which opened in June — nearly 20 years after Diane Gluck, the park alliance president, first envisioned it.

“People think architects just design buildings. We don’t,” Rook said. “Our clients are incredibly influential people… We get exposed to all of these big ideas. That’s what architects bring. We are rich with ideas.”

A legacy

Ben Rook wants people to remember that George C. Means Jr. was a man with big ideas and an unparalleled devotion to his students at Clemson. Even when the architecture students worked late into the night to complete projects, Means was there. His influence traveled far beyond the Architecture + Health studio that now bears his name, through the many lives Means shaped over the years.

The Rooks want their gift to the Means endowment to help keep Clemson University a place where extraordinary teachers can deliver extra care and individual attention to each student. “That is what makes Clemson great,” Ben said.

“These faculty just surrounded the students,” he said. “From an architectural point of view, that’s the key to my success.”

Also at the heart of his success has been his wife, Becca: “She is the one behind me doing all of these things in my life. I couldn’t have done it without her.”