A Man of Impact

Richard Traina

By Melissa Lynch Hoffmann ’95 and Jim Keogh Watch a tribute to Richard Traina.

Richard Traina arrived on campus in 1984 prepared to make changes.

Today, his tenure is seen as a transformative time in the University’s history, and in the neighborhood that Clark calls home.

Memories, even recent ones, often enough exist on the far side of hazy vistas and in the echoes of vague songs. One cannot always vouch for memories, yet earnestly recovered and revealed they can be authentic without being precise, recapturing the personality of circumstance and the topography of people. So wrote Richard Traina in the introduction of his 2008 memoir, “Random Reflections.”

By the time he penned those words, Clark University’s former president had known for some time that he was dying of prostate cancer. Still, ever the historian, he seized one last opportunity to record key passages about his life growing up in humble circumstances in the San Francisco area and, he said, to better understand “the families who spawned and nurtured me.”

Traina’s 16-year presidential tenure at Clark (1984-2000) is easily branded one of the most significant in the University’s history, a period that saw Clark’s academic reputation strengthen, its endowment multiply, new campus buildings rise and a partnership forged with the Main South neighborhood to become a national model for town-gown relationships.

When he died on March 8 at the age of 73, Richard Traina’s story would seem to have ended. But as he himself noted, memories are wonderful tools for reviving a person’s essence, which is why we’ve asked some folks who accompanied Clark’s seventh president on his journey to reflect on his time here.


… Richard “Dick” Traina was a student at Santa Clara University in California when he met Mills College coed Margaret “Polly” Warner on a blind date.

Actually, Dick was supposed to be the date of Polly’s roommate, Jane, at a party that night, and she was meant to be the date of his best friend, Rich. But Jane came down with the Asian flu, Rich had too much to drink and nodded off, and Polly and Dick talked deep into the night.

Polly Traina Dick had wonderful brown eyes, and he was tall. I liked that. The night of the party we went to his room and he dug out some poetry he’d written, and he started talking about some of his favorite poets. I hadn’t run into very many men that early in a friendship, at the initiating point, who would have been willing to make themselves vulnerable in that way. A couple of weeks later I called him and asked him if he would take me to a formal in San Francisco and he said yes. So we went, and there was no looking back.

… Dick and Polly married in 1959, had three children together, Cristina, Michelle and Matthew, and adopted a fourth, Michael.

With a Ph.D. in history from Santa Clara, Dick began his career as a professor and dean at Wabash College for 11 years, then spent a decade at Franklin and Marshall College as chief academic officer. But he was hungry for a new challenge.

Polly Traina Dick wanted a presidency, and he was concerned that if he got to be 50 and wasn’t in a presidency the chances would diminish considerably. He applied at several places, and was a candidate at four or five colleges simultaneously. Clark appealed to him because I think he was a little bit of a radical at heart. He told people he was willing to take the job because there were no fraternities, no ROTC, and no football. Dick would go to national meetings and most of the presidents would sit around and talk about scheduling games. He wanted no part of that.  

Virginia Vaughan, Professor of English I was one of three faculty members who were on the search committee that hired Dick, and there were only three women on the committee — [trustee] Alice Higgins, a female undergraduate and myself. At that time, there weren’t that many women on the faculty and generally Clark was pretty male-oriented. One of the things that I remember most about the search process was that we’d have these senior male candidates come in and they wouldn’t look at me; they ignored me as if I were part of the wall. But Dick engaged with everybody in that room. He was never afraid of strong women — and Alice Higgins was one strong woman. Dick was the one who hired the first woman provost at Clark, Fern Johnson. He wasn’t afraid of having a woman at that high echelon of the university. His presidency is when we started getting some really wonderful women on the faculty.

David Angel, President, Clark University Early in my career at Clark I had the chance to travel with Dick and Polly in Asia. As a young assistant professor, I was launching a new research project on the development of green technology in Japan. Dick and Polly were visiting with alumni, family, and friends of Clark in Japan and Korea. Quite by chance we were on the same flight to Tokyo. I remember well Dick and Polly encouraging me to attend the alumni reception in Tokyo and their taking a keen interest in my research. Dick was a strong supporter of faculty and took great pride in showcasing the accomplishments of faculty across the breadth of the institution. He was a mentor and friend from my earliest days at Clark.

Fern Johnson, Professor of English, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost (1988-1993) Under President Traina’s leadership, Clark moved from a relatively internally oriented place to a university much more engaged and knowledgeable about the larger environment. Richard Traina also understood and conveyed clearly the priority for what he referred to as “pluralism.” His vision was not only for a more diverse faculty, student body, administration and staff, but also for new ventures in programs and curriculum that would enhance the education of Clark’s students for the changing world. He also assertively and enthusiastically sought to create a culture of fundraising, without which Clark’s future would be compromised. He conveyed in every possible way to those inside the University that efforts to secure new resources must be substantially elevated, and to those outside he energetically presented Clark as a top-notch university for undergraduate and graduate study, and for its research accomplishments and potential.

Jim Collins, Executive Vice President and Treasurer, Clark University A short time after coming here, Dick Traina became the embodiment of the University. He had an impact on almost everything. His integrity was absolute, in the way he led, thought about things, conducted his life. It was one man, one person — one University. He was, from the time he got here, very focused on the student experience, and he believed we were not doing enough in that regard. We needed to make investments in those areas; the construction of the University Center was integral. He was focused on students, teaching — the whole experience.

Heather Scholack ’95 I met President Traina at an admitted-student reception in 1991 in New Jersey. It always stuck out to me, because he’d obviously read each person’s file and memorized something about each of us. When I introduced myself to him I felt so at ease. He knew I was interested in sciences — I was a biology major — and for him to take the time and effort to learn about us personally was so impressive. I worked on The Scarlet and interviewed him several times for articles; he was always nice and cooperative. He was like Clark to me.

Taffy (Lefkon) Breit ’89 President Traina was a warm, loving person — getting a hug from him was like getting a hug from your dad. One of the first things I noticed was that he was a great orator. It didn’t matter whether or not I cared about the topic, he was such a talented speaker, with a wonderful sense of humor, that I loved to listen to him. When I started The Clark Bars [an a capella group], President Traina was one of our first fans. Several years after I graduated, I watched the current Clark Bars perform during an alumni reception at Harrington House, and the alumni were talking boisterously among themselves. And he shushed the crowd, so they would appreciate the performance. He will be missed by many alumni who adored him. … When Dick began his tenure, the Trainas moved into the President’s House at 80 William St. in the Elm Park section of Worcester, one and a half miles from the Clark campus.

Polly Traina Eighty William Street was perfect for entertaining because it had tons of space. It wasn’t so great to live in because you had to heat all that space and keep it up. When I would come downstairs in the morning when Dick was on the road, it was like walking into a hotel lobby. Then I’d go into this cavernous kitchen, sit in a corner and eat my cereal. The biggest problem was that the house wasn’t on campus. Every year the freshmen were brought over for a picnic the week they arrived, but we had to bus them to the house. We also had to bus the parents to hold a reception on Parents Weekend. It was like, “Well, we live in the nice part of town.” This was just not appropriate, and it bothered Dick very much. Dick loved the idea of moving onto campus from the get-go. He had [Physical Plant Director] Paul Bottis canvas the neighborhood to see if there were any Victorians in good enough shape to convert and add on to. And that’s how we ended up in Harrington House on Woodland Street. amoi3

Jim Collins We knew the cost of moving the president’s residence to campus [purchasing four lots and renovations] would be a lot more than we could get in the sale of 80 William Street. But we went ahead, knowing it was the right thing to do. It was a major statement. … The relationship between Clark and the Main South neighborhood was rarely less than strained, and sometimes hostile in the years before Traina’s arrival. He sought to change that dynamic, investing time, resources, intellectual capital and goodwill into regenerating a frayed connection. The crown jewel was the University Park Partnership, a grass-roots collaboration between Clark and the surrounding community that culminated in such projects as the opening of the University Park Campus School, urban redevelopment on Main Street, and field construction and neighborhood revitalization in the Kilby, Gardner and Hammond streets area.

Jack Foley, Vice President for Government and Community Relations, Clark University We made some good progress during the early 1990s, but we felt as a neighborhood we weren’t making the kind of significant change that we needed to make. We were looking mainly at bricks and mortar — rehabbing a number of abandoned apartment units and houses along Main Street and around Clark, and bringing those back online. But some of the problems we saw around us were still creeping down the street. At the Main South Community Development Corporation we had been developing this plan of what do we do next and getting feedback from folks and from neighbors. We were having lunch at Tarragon’s [now Peppercorn’s], and started discussing how to really get a sense of what was happening in the neighborhood, what the next steps were. I was rattling off some of the things I’d heard in our conversations with the CDC, synthesizing the commentary. As I was talking, Dick grabbed one of the napkins from the table and started writing out the different categories of things to be done, groups to be formed. We talked about physical rehabilitation, and the work we were doing, how to ramp that up. How do we promote home ownership? Beyond that, what do people need now, in order to live in this neighborhood? What’s going to attract families to live here? Safety, economic development, creation of jobs and commerce, the whole issue of programs for kids and families, and, finally, educational opportunity as the critical component. Dick wrote this out, and we added more to it, and, really, that napkin became the beginning of the University Park Partnership. I wish we’d kept the napkin and framed it.

Polly Traina In early discussions with the neighbors it was asked, what’s the biggest problem Clark presents? The answer was parking and noise. Dick had Jim Collins start working on a plan for the parking garage with Paul Bottis, and they began trying to get more kids onto campus, short and long term. Dick had been prepared to hear a million things, but that was it in a nutshell: parking and noise.

Kevin O’Sullivan, M.P.A. ’87, President and CEO, Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives Before Dick came to Clark, the predominant feeling in the community was that nothing could get in or out of the black gated fence in front of the school. I was with the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce at the time, and had a chat with the chairman of Morgan Construction, Paul Morgan, who said we’ve got to go see this guy Dick Traina, the new president at Clark. Dick wasn’t a month or two on job, and here we are, these two upstarts, sitting in his office and delivering the somber message that Clark had neglected the neighborhood and needed to get involved. Dick listened patiently, and said: “What do you think I should do?” Paul looked at me, flabbergasted. I said, “Invite the neighborhood for a cookout.” Dick didn’t flinch. He said, “Let’s do it.” At the time it was so unClark-like to invite the neighbors in — hundreds of people showed up. They either had never been on campus or been chased off campus. Getting so deeply involved in neighborhood issues was unheard of for a college president. It would go down in the annals as a national model that took Dick’s leadership, foresight and vision to pull off. He brought such credibility to the table; treated everyone fairly. Honesty, trust, kinship, partnership — this wasn’t about ego for Dick. He was global in thought. He knew what was good for Worcester was good for Clark, and what was good for Clark was good for the world.

Steve Teasdale, Executive Director, Main South Community Development Corp. My first impression when I met Dick was that this was an impressive man, a man of stature — I was a little intimidated at first. As I gradually got to know him, it became very apparent he was not just a man of presence, but a man of substance. He had firm philosophical beliefs of what Clark’s role in the neighborhood should be and a sense of social justice. Dick institutionalized the need for Clark to give back, and to address the needs of those less fortunate in today’s economic circumstances. I never thought of it as just Dick — it was Dick and Polly. They were a team that broke down the walls that had made it “us versus them.” People believed Clark was sincere about using the University’s resources to benefit the neighborhood. What Dick seeded has continued to grow; his vision has impacted a huge number of lives in the neighborhood, for the good.


Jack Foley In June 2000, a month before John Bassett began his tenure, Senator Ted Kennedy was here with Congressman Jim McGovern to announce federal support for the work in the Kilby, Gardner, Hammond area. John Bassett happened to be here, and we walked down to Gardner Street, which was pretty shady back then. Soon, Kennedy was up on the stage talking about the great leadership of Dick Traina, his vision, and what he’d meant to this neighborhood. Kennedy said, “I also understand that somewhere out there in the audience is the new president of Clark, and I want to tell you — you’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill. And I hope that you’re able to step up and continue the great work of this great president, Dick Traina.” That stuck with John. He walked away realizing the impact that Dick had had, and realized that this was his charge: to continue Clark’s work in the community.

Ricci Hall ’97, M.A. Ed. ’98, Principal, University Park Campus School After graduating from Clark I worked on my master’s degree in education and did my graduate work here at the school in 1997-98, which was the year the University Park Campus School opened. Early on in the process it was really a handshake between President Traina and then-Superintendent Jim Garvey that got this whole partnership kicked off, but it was also the way in which Dick supported the partnership after that handshake. He never walked away from it. He had a real, day-to-day belief in the vision of the school. I think he felt great joy in the part that he had in creating it, and the work of the school and how it transforms the lives of the kids who come here. Two or three days after we opened, Governor Paul Cellucci came to our school to make an announcement. When the governor shows up, dignitaries show up with him — congressmen, city officials, and, of course, Dick was there, too. They wanted some kids from the school for a photo opp. When Dick took the podium, the kids were in the background and the politicians were up front. And Dick said, “We need to move these kids to the front.” So they did, and the politicians went to the back. For him, the creation of the school was not about a photo op, or pressing flesh with the governor, or getting a chance to have the bully pulpit for a few minutes. It was about what we were going to do for the kids, and how the lives of the kids were going to change. They were, in his mind, up front.

Damian Ramsey, first graduating class, University Park Campus School Through President Traina’s vision and passion, an open invitation to peruse the halls of Clark University became a permanent pipeline to four years of quality education for 31 college-ready UPCS students (and their families) living in the Main South area. As a member of the founding class, I can say first-hand that the ability to navigate a college campus from middle school through high school made the prospect of post-secondary education a real possibility. It was not an unreachable aim. It was tangible; and that reality changed my life-course trajectory. Dick Traina’s legacy lives on through each and every UPCS graduate who is guided to and through college. His legacy lives on through me.

… Dick Traina retired in 2000, completing 16 years at the helm of Clark University. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, but he defied the doctors’ prognosis not only in the amount of time he had left, but by the rich quality of the life he led.

Polly Traina The doctors gave Dick three to five years after he was diagnosed with Gleason 10 prostate cancer, which is the most aggressive form. Within two weeks he had surgery, but it was already in his system. He tried some chemo, trekking back and forth to Dana Farber. It did a number on him; it was absolutely all he could do to get out of bed. Eventually he asked the oncologist, “What kind of additional time is this going to give me?” She said, “Maybe two months.” And Dick said, “I’m going to take it now” and stopped treatments. When he died, he’d lived with the cancer for 10 years. But for the first five years, other than going to the oncologist or trying some medication, you were just unaware of it. He played golf; we went to Africa twice. He started throwing pots at the craft center and had a wonderful time doing it. Dick experienced no pain right up until he died, and nobody could understand that. The oncologist said it was totally bizarre. He was very weak the last couple of months and was having trouble following ideas. So to put together a story or an article — he had the idea but couldn’t execute it. Honestly, I think he was bored. Dick, of course, planned his own funeral down to the last detail, including the program and the music. Afterward, a friend of ours, Sister Rose, said Dick could have died sooner, but there were too many questions left that he still wanted to have answered.

This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, fall 2011.