Seven Presidents, 60 Years. Dr. Don Muench Reflects on Fisher's Fearless Leaders
Dr. Donald Muench may have spent his lifelong career at St. John Fisher College teaching linear algebra and data structures to undergraduates, but in his 50 plus years here as a student and faculty member, one could argue he’s somewhat of an expert on the College’s history, too.
Muench, who holds the record as Fisher’s longest running employee, has the unique perspective of knowing each of the College’s seven presidents. With the College's celebration of the inauguration of Dr. Gerard J. Rooney, College News sat down with Muench to hear first-hand how Fisher has changed and grown under each leader.
Muench met Fisher’s first president, The Rev. John F. Murphy, C.S.B., as a student. A member of the Pioneer Class, he had Murphy as an English professor. The soon-to-be math professor said it was probably the only English class he enjoyed.
“Fr. Murphy had a marvelous sense of humor. He could keep us in stitches, laughing with his choice of words,” he said. “He was a very good teacher, as I remember.”
Beyond Murphy’s knack for engaging his classroom of students, Muench said he later learned the College’s first president spent a lot of time advocating for his students as they graduated and applied to graduate schools and for jobs.
Muench met the College’s second president, The Rev. Charles J. Lavery, C.S.B., when he returned to join the faculty as a math professor. It was a time of immense change, he recalls.
“The buildings that went up under his watch—St. Basil Hall, the Science Building—the College grew quite a bit under him,” Muench said, adding that Lavery was a force in the community, as well.
When Lavery stepped down, The Rev. Patrick O. Braden, C.S.B, was selected to serve as president. He previously served as president of St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas, and began his academic career as a physics professor
“He was a tinker. I remember being in his office one time for a chat and he showed me his various kinds of calculating instruments—of which he had several. He enjoyed calculating things,” Muench said.
Of the presidents, Muench recalls the Inauguration of Dr. William L. Pickett as the College’s fourth president as particularly exciting because then New York State Governor Mario Cuomo served as a speaker.
“People talked a lot about having Cuomo come,” he said. “It was an exciting point in Dr. Pickett’s presidency.”
Pickett served as president for 10 years before stepping down. His successor was Dr. Katherine Keough, the College’s first woman president.
“Katherine Keough came in like a ball of fire,” Muench said with a laugh. “She got things moving.”
Muench recalled her visit to campus during the selection process, when she expressed interest in launching graduate programs in certain disciplines.
“She had some big ideas about a lot of programs. Somebody asked her, if you have all of these programs, they aren’t all going to be successful. And Dr. Keough said, ‘some of them—many of them—will be successful, and those that aren’t, you drop them. And those that are, you keep them,’” he said. “Her point was, that you carefully lay plans for new programs, and if they don’t work, they don’t work. And if they do work, you have success, and all you’re ever going to talk about are the ones that succeed.”
Muench said that Keough was a “visionary with a capital V” who inspired creativity among the faculty. After her sudden passing, he anticipated a slower, quieter pace at the College, and noted that Dr. Donald E. Bain’s 10 years in office were peaceful and steady, but active.
“I was pleasantly surprised that it was such an active presidency in the development of programs and buildings; it was amazing,” he said. “Dr. Bain had an emphasis on the academic and scholarly reputation of the College. He was like a steady captain on the bridge of a ship.”
Of all the leadership qualities Muench has observed while at Fisher, he says high visibility and strong relationships rise to the top. His advice for Fisher’s newest leader: be visible on campus and establish a good, strong relationship with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the College.
“We carry the reputation of the College into the world,” he said.
The inauguration of Dr. Rooney as the College's seventh president took place on Friday. Oct. 16.