Patriot, judge and scholar—Donald Bain has built his career being all three.
He steps down as president of St. John Fisher College at the end of June, leaving the legacy of a campus expanded in physical footprint and academic programs, record enrollment and an endowment that has grown by tens of millions of dollars.
Bain credits his success to support from the college’s board of trustees, the community and the woman he warmly refers to as “Lady Margaret.”
“Make that Saint Margaret,” he says of his wife, Margaret Bain. “Because that’s exactly what she has been for putting up with everything she has had to with me for the last 47 years.”
Forty of those 47 years were spent connected to the St. John Fisher College campus—first with Bain as a member of the faculty in 1975. His commitment to the college grew in various roles as professor, chair of the history department, dean of faculty, provost and dean of the college, and vice president for administration.
Bain’s role grew even bigger when he was named acting president following the death of Katherine Keough. He was named interim president in September 2004 as the college conducted a national search for Keough’s replacement. Bain then was appointed the sixth president of St. John Fisher College in November 2005.
Bain faced a big task in maintaining continuity with the campus’ unexpected loss of Keough, he recalls. He saw it as his main goal to assure not only internal groups but also the external community that the momentum would continue.
“Reassuring that I was dedicated to continuing diligence of expansion of projects was critical,” Bain says. “My plan was to move ahead full throttle.”
Right from the start, Bain had a vision for the direction the expansion should take at college. It was a call from a longtime friend who helped bring it to fruition. Bain and the late Robert Wegman sat on St. John Fisher’s board in the 1970s, he says, and Wegman invited Bain to his home to talk about plans for the future.
“He and his wife, Peggy, and I sat in his living room. He asked me my vision for the college. I said for my first project, I wanted to create a school of pharmacy. It would be sensible to make a virtue out of a necessity,” Bain says. “Bob said, ‘Draw me a business plan.’ I did and I went back to see him.”
The plan included the regional need for a school of pharmacy and how sustainable it could be. Wegman was impressed, Bain says.
“He gave me several million (dollars) to start it,” he says. “We did the exact same thing months later, sitting in his family room and he gave me some more. In total, $14 million for the school of pharmacy and school of nursing. They have been very transformational additions to the college and to the region.”
Other new construction during Bain’s tenure, in addition to the Wegmans School of Pharmacy and the Wegmans School of Nursing, includes Keough Hall, LeChase Commons, Joseph S. Skalny Welcome Center, Polisseni Track and Field Complex and the Victor E. Salerno Center for American Enterprise. There are also renovations in progress at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Athletic Center and the new Integrated Science and Health Sciences building.
Bain also expanded academic offerings, creating doctoral programs. Fisher now offers doctor of pharmacy, doctor of nursing practice and doctor of education in executive leadership degree studies.
Strength of one link
Bain believes the key to the college’s progress in the last decade is the support he has garnered. He likens it to the time he served in the military.
“It was a lesson I learned years ago in the Navy, and something a British Naval commander once said: ‘On the strength of one link in the cable, depends the might of the chain,’” Bain says. “That’s how I feel about the wonderful professionals and colleagues with whom I’ve worked. It’s a strong belief in the value of everybody on this campus—aimed towards supporting our students.”
He is especially appreciative of the board of trustees. There are those who see Bain as the supportive one, not just of St. John Fisher but of the Rochester community as a whole.
“When I first met Don, he already had his doctorate and had served his country,” says State Supreme Court Justice John Ark.
The two became friends in Brighton during the 1970s, serving together on the Republican committee, Ark recalls.
“He moved out to Wayne County to become a town judge,” he says. “He has an incredible understanding of law and from that he has been a tremendous support of the Justinian Society, a group of 400 lawyers, all Fisher grads, with great influence here.”
Ark sits on the president’s advisory board. Their shared love of law often led to discussions of potential growth in that area for the college.
“He and I were discussing a law school as the next project, conceptually,” Ark says. “A law school fits here. Rochester is the only city in New York State that doesn’t have a law school.”
Ark admires Bain for more than his professional accomplishments. He sees him as a man who celebrates his students’ accomplishments and is grounded in family values.
“His son was my paper boy growing up in Brighton, and he likes to remind me of that,” Ark laughs. “He went on to follow in his footsteps in the Navy and now he is law enforcement. It’s a tribute to his father. Don is a patriot in every sense of the word.”
Another longtime support and professional partner Bain relied on was Martin Birmingham, president and CEO of Five Star Bank. Birmingham’s involvement with Fisher pre-dates the Bain presidency, and he can see the campus’major transformation under Bain’s leadership.
“I’m a native Rochesterian and I have a pretty long perspective,” Birmingham says. “I believe Dr. Bain will be considered one of the most effective presidents in its history. He had an impressive grounding in its academic standing, in its vision. He is a strong leader, very effective in developing and executing an operational plan.”
Birmingham observes that St. John Fisher is a relatively young college, just 60 years old, yet it has produced very influential alums who are leaders in their fields. In Rochester, two of those major fields are law and accounting, he says, where alums are founders or leaders of major firms.
Having Bain as president came with the advantage of a package deal, Birmingham says
“His wife, Meg, was another benefit,” he says. “She worked tirelessly to support the students, faculty and community. She entertained in the president’s house to facilitate an interaction with the president in an intimate setting.
“She also volunteered her time on faculty and community initiatives. When reflecting on his leadership, it’s important to consider her contribution.”
Being at the helm of a major learning institution comes with many responsibilities, and Bain saw his role as one of moving education from one generation to the next.
He was committed to carrying on the tradition of the Basilian heritage of goodness, discipline and knowledge. Bain also wanted to expand the college. As president, he worked diligently to balance time-revered tradition with opportunities for growth.
“I’m responsible for 4,000 students and 5,000 employees. For 11 years, since day one, I have managed $100 million in operating budget, recognized 21st century enterprise to keep sustained financial health—while maintaining tradition, integrity and vision for our students,” Bain says.
The ultimate goal is always to “help students build lives and create careers,” Bain says. He showed an interest in students’ lives on campus by creating the president’s student advisory board his first year in office as a way to garner student input.
Bain also was involved in the decision to expand the college’s athletic offerings as a way to attract more students. The number of intercollegiate teams has grown from 14 to 23 under his presidency.
Many students remain connected to the St. John Fisher campus as alumni like Maherly Schaeffer, who graduated in 1998 with a bachelor of arts degree. She took several classes taught by Bain; today she works on campus with him through her position as advancement communications specialist.
“A common theme through his classes was always finding the opportunity in a challenge,” Schaeffer says. “There are so many pivotal points in history where someone was met with a challenge, and, instead of turning away, they reshaped the challenge into an opportunity. He always said, ‘Pressure makes diamonds.’”
Bain had high expectations of his students, Schaeffer says, which encouraged them to perform to a higher standard.
“He’s the type of professor and leader that makes you really want to earn that grade,” Schaeffer says. “He wanted us to think critically about topics and issues and articulate thoughts strongly and clearly both in writing and speaking. We learned a lot of history in his classes, yes, but we really learned how to think through things.”
Fulfilling a vision
Every Friday, without fail, Bain would start his classes by saying “Today is Friday. No Friday is a bad Friday,” Schaeffer recalls. She says in none of her four years as a student and in her years since has she tired of hearing that.
As Bain prepares for his proverbial “Friday” as president of St. John Fisher College, he leaves knowing he has accomplished even more than he set out to do. The $50 million Vision 2020 Comprehensive Campaign, designed to expand the campus, add scholarships and grow the endowment, reached more than $52 million by 2012.
Enrollment has grown by 15 percent during his tenure and the endowment stands at $71million, due in large part to Bain’s continued relationship with alumni.
“I believe we have a clear and certain vision of what we are and what we can be,” Bain says. “We have never veered from it. I speak of it to alumni groups everywhere from Boston to Washington and Palm Beach. I never tire of sharing our Basilian motto of goodness, discipline and knowledge.”
Maintaining ties with alumni will continue to be important, Bain says. The number of Fisher graduates has grown from 17,000 when he took office in 2005 to 27,000 during the 61st commencement this month.
Bain leaves feeling confident that the college is in great hands with his successor, Gerard Rooney.
“Dr. Gerry Rooney is a first-rate human being,” Bain says. “His understanding, skills—I’ve worked very closely with him and I know he will do an outstanding job.”
Bain expects to be closely linked to his Fisher family. He says he plans to spend much of his time involved with several non-profits, being with his family—besides his son, Donald, he has a daughter, Genevieve, and six grandchildren—and catching up on his reading. Travel to Ireland tops the list.
“What a delight it has been to serve as president all these years,” Bain says. “I’m sincerely honored to serve the students, faculty, staff, especially the supportive board of trustees. I have such gratitude for all the wonderful people I have worked with.”
5/29/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]