At UM, Kirwan's last hurrah College Park: After 34 years at the university, 10 as its president, it hurts to leave the campus he transformed.

June 11, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Walking up the steps of a new performing arts center on the University of Maryland, College Park campus last week, outgoing President William E. "Brit" Kirwan could only imagine the finished stage.

"It's going to be great!" he opined.

In his last months on the campus he has served for a third of a century, first as a professor and the past decade as president, such moments have been surreal for Kirwan: He expects to wake from a dream.

After 34 years, woven into a place as a thread into a cloth, leaving hurts.

His voice chokes and his eyes tear when he is reminded of it, which has been almost daily since January when he announced he would become president of Ohio State University.

College Park has been his intellectual and emotional home -- the place he matured, where he raised a family, established long-lasting friendships. The place that educated his children. He couldn't picture himself anywhere else.

"No," he had said when a search firm called to check his interest in the job in Ohio.

But 18 months ago he began to ponder how good and healthy it would be for him to continue to be president at College Park. Ten years is a long time. "I almost wish I was older," he told his wife. It was a strange comment, he thought, but also a strange time in his life.

Approaching 60, he enjoyed university life and had the energy for it. He couldn't imagine staying at College Park another five years -- to 65 -- without beginning to feel like a lame duck. Then what, at 65? If he were ever to do anything else, the time was now.

Such was Kirwan's mind-set when he confronted a minimum state budget appropriation for College Park last fall. He found it particularly disappointing.

In the decade Kirwan had been president, a remarkable thing had happened. Denied its promised financial backing shortly after he took over, the university had moved ahead on the spirit and will of its people. Now that the state was emerging from a recession, Kirwan expected a stronger response, anything really, that showed it would keep its promise.

As is his custom, he let the disappointment roll off and returned to business. As usual, he drove his own motor-pool car, poured coffee for visitors to his office and, when people sought his advice, hunched over to listen like an eager student.

One piece of business was a puzzling appointment on his calendar in late November. "What's this?" he asked his secretary. A Columbus lawyer named Alex Shumate representing the Kellogg Commission on land-grant universities wanted to meet with Kirwan about them.

Five people trailed Shumate into Kirwan's office, including Bernadine P. Healy, dean of the medical faculty at Ohio State and former director of the National Institutes of Health.

We're very sorry, Shumate began, but we're not here to discuss land-grant colleges. We're here to ask you to consider becoming president of Ohio State. Interested?

Kirwan was bowled over. How audacious!

"No," he said before sending them away. But the ambush left a big impression.

He agreed to visit Columbus. There, he sensed tremendous community support for the university. Soon he was having dinner with the board of trustees in Alexandria, Va. A month after the visit from the erstwhile land-grant commission, Kirwan accepted the job.

Rushing to meet with the College Park faculty early the next morning, he knew it would be difficult. But he was unprepared for a full hall, a standing ovation, and his own reaction -- choked by emotion, he was speechless.

"I was sobbing, really," he recalled in an interview last week.

"I feel a sense of loss personally," Kirwan said, "but the thing that gets me is the feeling of loss on the part of other people. It's a depth of feeling I didn't expect and it caught me by surprise."

It proved to be the most traumatic day of his life.

He has loved the sprawling campus from the day in 1964 he singled it out as he drove down Route 1 on his way to a convention of mathematicians in Miami. "That's where I'd like to be," he told his wife, Patty. When they arrived in Miami, he scouted for the University of Maryland's booth and won his first job as an assistant professor of mathematics. He was 26.

Twenty-five years later, the campus -- in the body of its faculty -- can be said to have picked him to be its president. With a search on, the faculty banged a virtual drum to make known its single-minded choice of Kirwan. They were needy and Kirwan, being one of them, knew what they needed. A player's coach, a professor's president, historians called him.

"... this is a moment we have dreamed of," then-provost Robert J. Dorfman said at Kirwan's 1990 inauguration.

His selection proved fortuitous, for lacking money to move College Park into the top 10 universities, Kirwan offered his indefatigable optimism.

His optimism became a joke on campus when the state contribution to the budget dropped $40 million -- 20 percent -- in a year and a half.

But it set the tone for what Kirwan calls College Park's "damn the torpedo, we'll do it anyway" response.

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