Whether it’s a president’s reception for donors or government officials, the student-centered Toro Iron Chef cooking competition, an education fair that brings tens of thousands of people to the California State University, Dominguez Hills campus, or commencement, the man behind them all is Toby Bushee, director of events and donor stewardship.
For his tireless work Bushee was recognized with the 2012 MPP (Management Personnel Plan) Outstanding Leadership Award.
“I still can’t believe that I won the award. It blows me away because to do what I do, it takes an army. I rely on just about every single department to make one event happen,” he said. “I’m humbled.”
But an army requires a leader, and Bushee might just be a four-star general when it comes to orchestrating a seemingly endless string of university events along with his staff Arleene Valdez, a part-time event coordinator, and Samantha Hernandez, a student assistant.
Bushee not only engages staff members from various departments from university communications, to printing, physical plant, and catering, to name a few, but he recruits and trains hundreds of volunteers—upward of 400 volunteers for the day-long Feria Spanish-language education fair the university hosts each fall in partnership with Univision and 350 for commencement ceremonies alone. And he will go through this preparation process for 200 or so events each year, on any given weekday, weeknight, or weekend. University events under his direction have been host to more than half a million guests over the past five years.
What drives this impressively energetic impresario to make the trip to campus from his home 68 miles away in Moreno Valley he said is the warm and cooperative campus community.
“At this university, the thing that I love the most is I can walk out into any building and know just about anybody that I pass by,” he shared. “You hear folks talk about ‘Oh, it’s a family.’ But here, I think it really is.”
As a steward for donor relations, Bushee extends this same welcoming treatment to major university partners, making sure their corporate identities are properly represented in event materials, as well as making sure representatives from these companies are invited, recognized, greeted, and attended to while at university events.
In his nomination of Bushee, Greg Saks, former vice president for university advancement at CSU Dominguez Hills now at CSU Fullerton, praised Bushee for the role he plays in university advancement, saying he “plans and directly supports university events with a focused goal of providing an enjoyable event for attendees, and promoting the university in a positive light. For our donors to be able to enjoy a strong, quality event with the vast majority of the costs going to the students it is aimed to support, speaks volumes to our commitment to students.”
Despite pressures imposed by state budget cuts over the past few years, Bushee, who also serves on the University Budget Committee, says there is still an expectation for a certain level of event activity in order for the university to foster relationships among the community and promote the benefits of supporting the university. So, he’s had to be more creative.
“When I first got here, we had eight presidential scholars. We were spending a lot on a formal dinner. We changed the format to a reception and now have 18 scholars and have a lot more money going into the scholarship rather than into the dinner,” he pointed out.
Bushee indicated that events will continue to play a vital role in the university moving forward, especially because University Interim President Willie Hagan is a “very much out-front people person.”
Bushee co-chaired the university’s 50th anniversary campaign in 2011, which was recognized with a Council for Advancement and Support of Education silver medal award. The campaign highlighted the university’s golden jubilee on campus and in the community with a banner campaign, which continued and is now going into its third year and theme. To commemorate the milestone anniversary, Bushee organized a large-scale photo session that featured more than 1,000 people forming the number 50.
His accomplishments at the university are varied and many, from helping to launch the presidential speaker series, to coordinating a flash mob, which was covered by Channel 7 news, to managing the common area on the fifth floor north wing of the Library.
However, as a teenager none this was what he had envisioned for himself. He had planned on a career in jewelry design.
“I could have never scripted this,” Bushee said of his career. “Coming out of high school, I thought I was going to make jewelry for living.”
He took jewelry making courses throughout high school and won awards for his work. He aspired to attend the Gemological Institute of America, but having to support himself after graduating from Moreno Valley High School, he couldn’t afford the tuition.
He learned from a cousin who was a lawyer for the Navy patent office that the military needed paralegals. With his hopes to attend gemological school dashed and enjoying research, he decided becoming a paralegal might be a good direction to go. So, he earned a paralegal certificate from Chapman University in Orange.
But while working as a lead waiter at Air Force Village West, a retirement facility for military officers in Riverside, he began developing a passion for food service. Bushee was a natural. Raised by a single mother, with his younger sister passing away and his older brother not interested in cooking, those duties fell upon Bushee when he was 10 years old. He went on to test his culinary acumen in cooking competitions. Not only did his cooking skills grow as he did, but he was gaining a deepening appreciation for gatherings centered on food.
As fate would have it, at Air Force Village West he met Richard Chester, who would later become director of campus dining services at CSU Dominguez Hills.
Chester suggested Bushee apply for an open position as a dining room manager at Mt. San Antonio Gardens senior care community in Pomona, where Chester worked at the time. Bushee got the job at 19. Prior to working at CSU Dominguez Hills, he also served as an assistant food service director at San Bernardino Community Hospital, and through a contract management company, held various food service positions at Pomona College and University of California, Riverside Extension.
When Chester moved to CSU Dominguez Hills in 1996 he recruited Bushee to serve as assistant director of food service. Catering turned out to be the perfect outlet for his people-pleasing penchant as well as his culinary and creative capabilities.
“I still got to have a hand in what the food was like, but I also got to set it up and make it appealing,” he said.
As his career developed into event management, Bushee discovered that despite his spontaneous personality, he has strengths in organization. He may have never discovered this had he not been given the chance.
“Being at the university, I feel like I’ve been able to grow exponentially. Not only in my career, but as a person,” he said.
However, that is not to say that being spontaneous isn’t an asset in event management.
“You have to think on the fly. And with events … you have all the best laid plans, but it’s the things you do when things go wrong that make the event successful or not successful,” he conceded. “To see it all come together in that moment. There’s nothing better for me. I am committed to every single guest experience on our campus.”
In his nomination letter Saks called Bushee a critical member of University Advancement and “a campus treasure.” One might even say he’s a jewel.