RENSSELAER — The recent resignations of several leading figures associated with the St. Joseph’s College Phoenix Project have left alumni upset and asking for answers.
Former vice president of advancement Bill Hogan, former chief intelligence officer Michael Kohlman and Ned Tonner, a local attorney and former member of the SJC Board of Trustees, all announced their resignations in recent weeks.
Hogan, in particular, was lauded as a leading figure in the effort to restore SJC to accredited status resembling the college’s state prior to suspending operations in 2017. The departure of the men, and others, has sent shockwaves through the SJC alumni community.
“As a member of the alumni association, I hear from a lot of alumni and, of course, I’m monitoring the situation on social media and the discussions that are being had,” said Jackie Bradway, vice president of the SJC Alumni Association Inc. “I think the overall feeling of the alumni (is that) a lot of people are just confused for what this means for the future and have questions, questions that we’ve had for a long time and questions that haven’t been answered yet by the board of trustees.”
At least one alum with a prominent social media platform has called for the removal of several members of the college’s current board of trustees.
John Paczesny, a 1976 alum known for posting often on the SJC Puma Pride Facebook page, has called for the removal of several members, including Father Larry Hemmelgarn, of the Society of the Precious Blood, the board president.
Paczesny and others associated with the college believe that the board of trustees had a fundamental disagreement with Hogan, the college’s former vice president of advancement.
This disagreement apparently led to Hogan’s resignation, as well as that of Tonner, who stated his support for Hogan’s vision of the college on Facebook after making his own resignation from SJC official.
“I’m sure they are trying to diffuse this,” Paczesny said. “I’m not giving up.”
Paczesny said he has a meticulous collection of saved emails and posts associated with the school and its developments, and he is hoping he can inspire his fellow alumni to action against the board’s leadership.
“I don’t have a lot of money to give the school,” he said. “I grew up at a time when you rolled your sleeves up, you grabbed a paintbrush, you grabbed a broom and you helped.”
The passion he’s showing for the school today stems from his experiences as a student in the mid-1970s.
“I can’t explain what the school did for me,” he said. “I went in there as a shy 18-year-old kid from South Bend and left there four years later a totally different person.”
Paczesny said that, for years, he wasn’t able to attend campus events, due to having to care for ailing family members and raising his own family. His plans to return to campus after his parental obligations were taken care of became dashed when the school suddenly announced its dire financial situation.
“I had kids and stuff, and once they were all out of the house, I was looking forward to getting back down there,” he said. “And then, of course, the closing came, which was very devastating to me — and it still is. I mean, there’s times I can be talking to people and it gets emotional.”
Paczesny still works as the patient accounts director for Healthwin, a skilled nursing facility in South Bend. He has come to believe that the school may not ever be able to reopen and resume an existence like it once had.
“My biggest fear today is (that) education is evolving, and the pool is getting smaller,” he said. “Where is our niche in this? And I still question whether anybody but local people would want to attend St. Joseph’s College. Why would someone from Chicago, where a lot of our alumni came from, want to drive into school in Rensselaer for farm management or for business?”
His limited knowledge of how to operate an online campaign to rally the alumni leaves him hoping that others will take up his cause.
“There have been comments about starting a petition,” he said. “I don’t want to be the one to start it. And it’s not that I don’t want to start it; I don’t know how to start it online. I think too many people online, they’ll like something, but they won’t comment for fear of retaliation or negativity.”
In any case, it is difficult for him to be hopeful these days.
“I don’t know what the future is,” he said. “I’m not optimistic. If there is no change, I think we can write a eulogy.”
If that happens, he would like to see what history the alumni can preserve from the campus, such as the chapel and the grotto.
Paczesny’s sentiments have been echoed by other alumni as well. Dale Fallat, a 1966 alum, has many beloved memories of SJC. But he can’t help being cynical about the odds of it coming back to its full former glory.
“I don’t think they can bring a school back out of the ashes,” he said. “Maybe (it could be) a very specialized school, maybe something that I haven’t thought of yet. But you’re going to see so many small colleges bite the dust in the next few years. It’s not going to be funny.”
Fallat also feels that the college’s geographical position is an obstacle.
“It can’t work, I don’t think,” he said. “Now sure, you could be maybe a two-year college for somebody or another. I can see that. But you don’t really have the demographics for that in Rensselaer, I don’t believe, when I think of all the junior colleges I’m aware of, they all have a pretty good metro area to draw from. If you’re not a residential school, how can you get those kids? How far can they drive?”
He said there may also be a possibility of using the campus for all kinds of other activities, just to keep the space active and up to date since a traditional four-year college doesn’t seem to be in the cards any longer.
“I think it was tragic that St. Joe had to leave this world when it did,” he said. “But I don’t know how long it could have sustained.”
That being said, if there was some option that could keep it going to some degree, he would support it.
“I want Rensselaer to succeed,” he said. “I want St. Joe’s to rise out of the ashes on some basis. But to try and say, ‘Well, St. Joe’s has got to come back and all of its supporters are going to send money,’ that just delays the inevitable.”
He believes this is true, if for no other reason than the skyrocketing cost of a four-year college education.
“Now I’m talking as a parent who put four daughters through college,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I could do it now. I mean it’s just a big undertaking.”
He believes that those involved should keep an open mind.
“I’d go way out in a different direction,” he said, “because, otherwise, I think you’re just spinning your wheels in a place where you already tried it.”
Attempts to reach Hemmelgarn for comment were not immediately successful.