Former Salisbury president dies Thomas Bellavance, 62, reinvigorated E. Shore university

February 11, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Thomas E. Bellavance, who is credited with jump-starting Salisbury State from a sleepy state college to a bustling regional university, died of lung cancer yesterday afternoon at his home near the Eastern Shore campus. He was 62.

When Dr. Bellavance came to Salisbury in 1980, he found an $880,000 debt, and the predominantly white state college was feuding, as it had been for decades, with its neighbor 15 miles south, the historically black University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

By last fall, when Dr. Bellavance retired because he said he had lost the "moxie" necessary to lead the school after 15 years, Salisbury had what University of Baltimore President H. Mebane Turner called "the strongest student body of any public college in the state."

The debt had been erased, Dr. Bellavance had built a $16.3 million endowment, the largest of any comprehensive state university in Maryland, and businessmen such as chicken entrepreneur Frank Perdue and aviation executive Richard A. Henson had invested millions of dollars in the Salisbury campus.

The year after Dr. Bellavance's arrival at Salisbury from the vice presidency of a state college in Framingham, Mass., he and William P. Hytche, the UMES president, began cooperating and eventually established a partnership that allowed each campus to retain its identity while collaborating on dual degree programs, academic schedules and even a shuttle bus between schools.

"He'll be severely missed not only on the Eastern Shore but throughout Maryland," said Dr. Hytche. "He deserves particular credit for the work he's done to establish our cooperative model."

"The two men have established what has become a model for Maryland and the nation," said John S. Toll, president of Washington College in Chestertown.

"He was a very, very good president," said Robert Cook, former head of the Greater Salisbury Committee, a business group. "He picked very good people to work around him and very good faculty. He added in every conceivable way to the well-being of Salisbury, from its intellectual to its economic to its cultural life."

"He left an indelible mark on the university," said Francis Kane, a philosophy professor. "He transformed the university into a place where excellence was prized, and he transformed the look of the campus from drabness to beauty."

Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes said, "In his pursuit of academic excellence, Thom Bellavance helped create a true academic community, a community of scholars with an abundance of opportunities to learn and grow and a strong sense of family among the students, faculty and administrators."

Dr. Bellavance received national recognition when he assigned students with work-study grants to maintenance jobs such as painting. He also invited his faculty and staff to grow vegetables and flowers in assigned plots on the campus.

When Dr. Bellavance retired in the fall, he said his decision was unrelated to his cancer, which he had discovered in 1994.

In an interview with The Sun in the fall of 1994, Dr. Bellavance attributed the disease to 40 years of cigarette smoking. He said then that he still smoked five or six cigarettes a day.

"There's a hook in me that I can't get rid of," he said. He said he had "tried everything. I've tried acupuncture, I've tried Smoke Stoppers, hypnotism. Now I'm trying to find a psychiatrist. I'm still smoking. It's the one area of my life where I feel helpless."

Dr. Bellavance said he wanted his remarks to be a warning to young people to shun cigarettes. "It's not macho, not 'in,' not cool. Most of society frowns on it. And it'll kill you," he said.

Dr. Bellavance was born in Norwich, Conn., attended schools in Connecticut and earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Connecticut. He earned a master's degree from Northwestern University and a doctorate from Michigan State University.

He began his teaching career in Connecticut high schools, moving eventually to English faculties at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Michigan State and Urbana College in Ohio, where he was dean of the college and acting president. He moved to Framingham State College in 1974 as a dean, eventually becoming vice president for academic affairs. He moved to Salisbury in 1980.

Dr. Bellavance is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; and four children, Eugene Bellavance of Salon, Ohio, Sarah Rasich of Dallas, Texas, Genevieve Bellavance of Narbreth, Pa., and Emily Bellavance of Salisbury.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Francis deSales Roman Catholic Church in Salisbury.

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