From ‘Shoeshine Boy to College President’

Adrian, MICH – What began as a personal connection to a schoolmate became a writer’s dream – to spin the inspirational story of one man’s rise to the top. For Renee Collins, her friendship with such a man’s daughter resulted in the opportunity to help him preserve his story for his children and grandchildren and encourage others to follow their dreams.

“I’ve known Lou for a long time and he can be a very persuasive guy,” Collins said. “One day, we were talking and he was recalling a story from his childhood and I told him I thought he should write some of this stuff down. The next thing I know, I had volunteered to be the one to do just that.”

The story of Louis Vaccaro, who served as president of Siena Heights University from 1977 to 1983, was a tale worthy of sharing. Collins believed that Vaccaro’s story was unique, a rare look into a private man’s life from his days as a shoeshine boy to his years as a college president.His story became a tribute to growth and accomplishment and a testament of the impact he made on the lives of thousands of young men and women. His humble roots and dedicated climb would become the basis of his autobiography, and the opportunity for Collins to expand her literary skills.

These are some excerpts.

On his childhood neighborhood Dana Street was our haven during the Great Depression. Just one block long, it was within walking distance to Mr. Parker’s Malt Shop, the Great American Market, the Dana Street elementary school and play-ground and St. Agnes Catholic Church and School, which housed grades 1-12. Dana Street was also home to a variety of ethnic groups. There were only two socio-economic levels among these families, poor middle class and better-off middle class, but my friends and I were never aware of which class we occupied.

On his start in higher education Having a wife and children meant finding a job so I started working at Pacific Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company and attending graduate school at Cal State Northridge. I didn’t really enjoy my work at Pacific Bell, although there were many opportunities to advance within the organization. Graduate school made me realize I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to help others and impact their lives in a positive way, to show them the opportunities that awaited them with a good education.

On his early challenges at Siena Heights Siena Heights had been a distinguished women’s college until the 1960s, when dwindling enrollment convinced the trustees to begin accepting men. When I arrived in 1977, the college was coed in name only. There were few men on campus and fewer applicants. Something had to be done. After much observation, campus meetings and lots of thinking, I became convinced that we needed to add an athletic program to attract men. First up was basketball. The problem was there was no basketball court on campus. So, we did the next best thing — we used the elementary school gym at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. This was OK except our players had to jog to and from the facility every day. With no home court on which to play home games, we were forced to use the elementary gym and all the spectators had to sit on the stage in order to cheer on the team. But cheer they did.

Louis Vaccaro’s career includes serving as the president of six colleges and universities, including Siena Heights. Vaccaro estimates more than 500 international students have graduated from U.S. colleges and universities since he began establishing international student programs more than 35 years ago. In his “retirement” years, Vaccaro has served as interim president at colleges in Vermont and New Jersey and was awarded his first Fulbright to Honduras at the age of 72. He continues to teach, publish and consult. Most recently, he completed a Fulbright in Indonesia.

Collins spent more than 20 years as a journalist and writer and is the journalism professor at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. Born and raised in Tecumseh, Collins maintains strong ties to both higher education institutions and its students. Her current role with Adrian College includes oversight of student-led publication, The College World. A prolific free-lance writer, Collin’s work has appeared in Lenawee Magazine, Lenawee Pulse, The Daily Telegram and The Detroit Legal News. She currently resides in Raisin Township with her husband. Collins can be reached via email at: rcollins@adrian.edu.

“Around the Corner: From Shoeshine Boy to College President” is available from Infinity Publishing in softcover format for $10.95. For more information about the book, call 517-673-1935 or email jr7680@aol.com.