C. Brent Wallis
The Ogden Exchange Building: From Cattle to
A young college professor made something from nothing.
The Exchange Building was the beginning of a legacy of a new kind of education in Ogden
C. Brent Wallis
Brent Wallis may have dreaded Monday mornings a little more than most in the early 1970s. That’s because his Monday morning started about 2:30 a.m. He went to bed early on Sunday night, set his alarm and hopped out of bed – not to get ready for the day – but with hammer in hand to start the old boiler at the old Ogden Exchange building just over the old 24th Street viaduct.
It didn’t take long for Brent Wallis to see that there was a real need for what the tech college could offer many in the Ogden area.
The old building, which had been used as the great Exchange building during the days of the Ogden Stockyards, was now used as a place of education for the Ogden-Weber Tech college. But, if Wallis didn’t go down during the night and bang the boiler, it would be a long, cold week for the hundreds of students and instructors that would fill the place at 7 a.m. Monday morning and each day of the week.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew nothing about boilers. I just took my hammer and banged around until the old thing turned on,” Wallis said with a laugh, remembering the early morning memory.
Once he got it revved up, he hopped in his car, went home and went back to bed until his day officially started a few hours later.
Making Something Out of Nothing
This proved to be a bit of a symbol for the beginnings of the tech college at the Exchange Building. At the time he was asked to get things started for the college, it was 1971 and Wallis was a young man of about 30. He had been teaching at then Weber State College in their computer department.
“They called me in and told me they had some grant money from the federal government,” Wallis explained. That grant money was to be used to help disadvantaged and diverse students in the Ogden area to learn some sort of trade. Wallis freely admits he didn’t know what he was doing, but he was willing to give it a go.
“That decrepit old building was in really bad shape,” he said of the old Exchange Building, but the college figured it would serve the purpose and they could have access to the funds and help more people in Ogden. And the building was available, even if was in terrible shape.
Things started as a conglomeration of agencies for “poor people” as Wallis described it. There were options for English as a Second Language, GED, upholstery, sewing and then soon welding classes were added. The classes started out all being taught in the downstairs portion of the Exchange Building. Other classes were taught in the dance hall. “That place was dark and dreary,” Wallis said with a sigh. “But we made the best of it,” he explained. He remembers one Halloween party where he brought his wife. “We scared the hee-bee-gee-zees out of her!” Wallis exclaimed, but he wasn’t referring to the costumes or the Halloween night but the location and ambiance of the old building. “It was a scary place in a scary part of town,” he mused.
In addition to the crack-of-dawn Monday boiler room visits, it wasn’t unusual for Wallis to get a middle-of-the-night phone call from the Ogden police. “They would call me up and tell me a vagrant had broken in and were sleeping downstairs (at the Exchange),” Wallis said. He would haul himself out of bed, drive down to the old place. At the time he lived at the top of 23rd Street in Ogden. He would often find that someone had thrown a brick or rock into the basement window, broke the window, crawled inside and tried to find a warm spot to sleep. “I’d go down and poke the old buddy and roust him about,” Wallis said. He then would have the window fixed until it happened the next time. “I never did understand why the police called me. I guess they just thought it was my job,” he wondered. That happened numerous times – Wallis figures at least a dozen.
Security was a real issue when things were getting rolling with the school though. It concerned Wallis quite a bit, especially when more valuable teaching equipment was being housed there. He mentioned things to the college about it, but finally just approached a member of the Weber County Commission, Commissioner Storey. “You’ve got a lock on your door, you’re fine,” the commissioner told Wallis.
At that, Wallis figured it was time for the two of them to take a little field trip. He pulled out a credit card, slid it in the lock, and whalla – he was inside. “You see, that’s how secure we are here,” he told the commissioner. After that, new locks were installed and Wallis felt much better about the security – even though the vagrants were a regular occurrence, at least he felt confident that his employees and supplies were more safe – even if a homeless man caught a nap in there every once in a while.
Bursting at the Seams
As it turns out, the need for the skills taught was even bigger than imagined. Wallis was also able to staff the place with many skilled workers who had their finger on the pulse of the needs of the community. Wallis laughs at the memory. “Here I was the only white person in this whole organization. It was really something,” he said. “They asked me to head up this organization and thought they would give me this money and after one year it would fail. Well, 37 years later and I retired,” he said with a great big grin.
He greatly admires all those that put their heads down and went to work, even though it was some of the hardest work that could be imagined. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I figured it out, slowly over time.” He could see how the students learning process could meet the needs of the industry. He saw it firsthand at the Exchange Building, but getting the talking heads at Weber State College to understand was another matter in and of itself.
As things progressed at the fledgling project at the Exchange Building, Wallis and other members of the team came to realize it would be most efficient if they started using an open entry and exit model along with open enrollment. In this model students could come in and out of classes based on hiring needs and when they completed their classes.
When Wallis approached the leadership at Weber State College about it, it was a bit of a foreign concept to them. “If you offer a welding class you need to have 30 kids in at the start and the finish, you see,” Wallis explained. So, in order to add the welding class, he recruited the 25 kids, but knew there was a better way. But, according to Weber State College professors, it didn’t make sense to have students come and go at their own pace or when they were needed in the workforce, but to Wallis, who was working with the hiring pool in the industry, it made perfect sense. Over time, everyone was able to see the big picture and it’s one of the concepts that has made the tech college the successful place it is today. “It wasn’t the typical college system, but it was what worked,” he said. “We were working on the constant learning variable and college is on the constant time variable,” Wallis said with a laugh.
Growth Brings Change
Once the idea percolated, the college decided to let Wallis take the lead with the open enrollment plan – plus it worked out better space wise at the Exchange Building because things were booming. The school districts also had a piece of the puzzle too. They were helping to pay for the kids to go to school and it became a bit of the problem because the districts could see the tech college getting money for their students and they wanted that money back. It was an interesting conundrum. The students were benefitting, but many parties wanted the money that would be educating those students.
The Exchange Building was loaded to the gills and Wallis was having to outsource classes to different areas in Ogden. The school districts weren’t super happy either. Wallis remembers one time when the superintendent of Weber School District came to one of their meetings at the Exchange Building and was a bit condescending to one of the members of the committee – someone who Wallis held in high regard. He was irritated with the tone of this superintendent, but apparently she was as well. When he got done she told him, “You just go back to your school and you let us do what we know how to do here. We have this covered,” she said as shook her finger at him. Wallis laughed at the memory. “I didn’t need to stand up for her. She stood up for herself. He didn’t have much more to say after that,” Wallis grinned.
The year was 1975 and they had spent four years in what Wallis describes as the “old decrepit Exchange Building.” Wallis remembers one hot summer day when he left the windows down in the building over the weekend. There was no air conditioning and the place was like a fireplace on hot summer days. When they returned from the weekend the building was full of flies. “I was so damn mad at myself,” Wallis said with a hearty chuckle. “It took us days to rid ourselves of those flies,” he added.
Not long after that, the school districts decided to pull their funding which left Wallis pretty devastated. “I had to lay off 2/3 of my teaching staff,” he said, anger still rising in his voice at the thought. But, in exchange for the funding being pulled the Weber School District donated the old Weber High School to the tech college on 12th and Washington. That resolved the space issue, but Wallis was severely cut in teachers. But, because the programs were so successful, it didn’t take long to find other funding sources and in less than two years things were built back up. It wasn’t long after the old Weber High School days that land was bought in the current site of the Ogden/Weber Tech College at 200 North Washington Boulevard. Wallis was thrilled to break ground at the new site in 1984 where the campus has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 30 + years.
Exchange Building: A Great Start for Ogden Tech
Although the physical facility of the Exchange Building left very much to be desired, Wallis looks back on those starting years with fondness, because something of great value was created there – something that has positively affected the lives of thousands in the Ogden area. “That old place had soul,” he said. “It was a place where we could direct the programs and really create something. It wasn’t so much about the place, but what happened there,” he added. He feels the soul of the Exchange Building and the history that had happened there are directly related to the history of that area as a whole. There were hard things there, for sure. But great things came from the hard things.
Wallis started with only 93 students in those first days. Now the Ogden/Weber Tech College has more than 6,000 students and 68 percent of jobs in Utah stem from subjects of classes taught at the Ogden/Weber Tech College. There are over 300 technical-skills courses in 32 employment categories, a far cry from its beginnings when Wallis was trying to convince Weber State College to offer open-ended enrollment.
Wallis’ vision for the college was unmatched and started in less-than-perfect conditions, but in a great place of great history – the Ogden Exchange Building.
Rachel J. trotter
Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer/editor at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.
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Evalogue.Life was hired to capture the history of the Ogden Union Stockyards and the old Swift meat packing plant, including oral history and other research. These vignettes were written by Evalogue.Life team members.