With a 360-degree twirl of his office chair, Jerry Flanagan '71 can survey his past, present and eternal future. "President Jack Neuhauser jokes that out of one window I can see where I've been around campus as a student, employee and neighboring resident. Then my office here is my present life, where I am, and out that other window is where I'll be some day—in Merrill Cemetery right across Route 15!"
Flanagan is retiring later this year after nearly four decades as Saint Michael's enrollment/ admissions chief. He has no immediate plans for himself in Merrill—instead, he explains how at his family's suggestion he bought burial plots in the Merrill Cemetery years ago as a sentimental nod to the late '70s and early '80s when they were renting a small college-owned house across from the cemetery. The house, once a stone's throw from Flanagan's current office in the Hoehl Welcome Center, was razed to make way for new residence halls, long after Flanagan's fast-growing family moved to a bigger house in Colchester. "I like thinking that as long as Saint Michael's exists, I will be a part of it, kind of checking it out from above," he says.
By a conservative estimate, Flanagan has written the acceptance letters for 80 percent of the alumni in Saint Michael's 100+ year history. He signs each acceptance himself in purple ink, adding a personalized postscript to each based on applicants' self-revelations in essays or interviews. That meant 3,000 letters this year.
By a conservative estimate, Flanagan has written the acceptance letters for 80 percent of Saint Michael's living alumni.
His professional world at present turns on rapidly changing college-marketing and enrollment forces that pose serious daily challenges for him and his staff. But Flanagan, a former high school and college football player and coach with a direct and serious manner tempered by easy personal warmth, is an optimist's optimist, the "glass-half-full" guy and arguably Saint Michael's College most loyal cheerleader. "I tell families right up front when they talk to me that I can't be impartial about this place," he says. He says his kids always tease him that whenever he goes, "I always am wearing something that says Saint Michael's. It's true, because you'd be amazed how many conversations it starts. I've always been about grassroots recruiting, though today's climate demands we go even beyond that now."
His longtime colleague, Director of Admissions Jackie Murphy '74, says that in meeting these challenges head-on, her boss of 35-plus years has an unflappable, serious aspect to his reassuring father-figure persona, which she traces to Flanagan's assuming serious adult responsibility at home and work early in life. He became assistant dean of students by age 24 in 1973 when he began under Edmundite Father Frances Moriarty's interim presidency, and was invited by the next president, Ed Henry, to lead admissions by 1975.
By then, Flanagan already was married to his wife, Judy, a Trinity College graduate. They met when he was a St. Mike's senior political science major, and they were married as he was starting graduate study in higher education at the University of Vermont. He returned to Saint Michael's to work when "I applied and was fortunate to be selected. It's just gone from there."
For a demanding few months in those first years, he tried splitting himself between Student Life and Admission. He thoroughly enjoyed student life work and initially envisioned that as his career field. "Even now I still sometimes miss that close daily interaction with our students," he says. But when President Henry presented Flanagan a choice of working full-time in one area or the other, he fatefully chose admissions.
Indirectly, that choice led to the hiring, not long after, of Flanagan's longtime colleague, Mike Samara, who retired in 2012 as dean of students. "No one establishes the personal touch during the admission process like Jerry," says Samara, who feels Flanagan's greatest legacy might be the "very professional staff" he has hired—a staff that has grown considerably over time.
"We just had a handful of people in the office when I started," Flanagan recalls. "There were John Sheehey '70 (now the registrar) and I, a counselor on the road and two support people. We'd roll decisions into a typewriter— that was our technology. But as the landscape got more competitive, we've added to the team."
"Carol Redmond, my assistant, has been with me 40 years as my right hand," he says. "Some have joined us for extended periods, others come and go, but the core is very solid," he says. Many staffers are fixtures including Murphy, whom Flanagan first hired to work with him in Student Life after she graduated in 1974. Other college staffers who have passed through his office include John Kulhowvick, director of institutional research, and Patrick Gallivan '89, vice president for institutional advancement. "I admitted Patrick in 1985, hired him for admissions in 1989 before he went over to head Alumni Relations.
"And he'll be my boss a year from January," Flanagan adds. He's agreed to help with development for the college once he wraps up his enrollment and admissions duties. Gallivan says it's hard to imagine a better man for the job.
"I'm really ecstatic about Jerry joining the advancement team," Gallivan says. "He can articulate better than anyone the need for financial aid in the college admissions process, and he truly lives the mission of Saint Michael's. He's one of my role models. Jerry brings out the strengths of the people around him, giving folks responsibility and not micromanaging too much. He lets people make decisions. When I was a young admissions officer, he'd advise and mentor, but not dictate."
A panoramic campus view from the 1950s, painted by former president Rev. Gerald Dupont, SSE hangs on the south wall of Flanagan's bright and glassy office on the second floor of the Hoehl Welcome center. The scene pre-dates Flanagan's 1967 arrival on campus as a freshman by about a decade, but he loves to note the link between the painting, which came into his possession at the start of his career as a gift from Father Leon Paulin '38, and his present campus view out the big office window next to the painting.
"When Fr. Paulin painted it, he must have been standing on the land beneath Hoehl."
"When he painted it, he must have been standing right here on the land beneath Hoehl, which used to be a baseball field I think," marvels Flanagan. He had his epiphany about the painting the very day he moved into Hoehl in 2002, and he decided right then that the painting belonged on that wall and must stay for whoever succeeds him.
Flanagan's office in Hoehl is basically right in his old neighborhood from those days when he and Judy were raising their oldest kids in that College Parkway house. "Except for a short time living up at the Fort on North Campus when I first started in 1973, this is where we began," he says.
At the Fort, he and Judy made close lifelong friends with Rit DiVenere '67 and his wife Nancy. DiVenere, like Samara, recently retired after decades of working for the college.
Flanagan has warm memories of his St. Mike's neighbors, whether it was the Edmundites dropping by from abutting Nicolle Hall, or the "surrogate grandparents" for his kids, longtime athletic director and coach Doc Jacobs and his wife across the fence on one side, and Mary Macomber, valued assistant to several Saint Michael's presidents, on the other. He's been active in Colchester town affairs for 40 years, particularly the Water District. Judy is a respected school librarian in Colchester.
Friends appreciate Flanagan's unaffected personal one-on-one empathy, which rarely fails to resonate with parents and prospects. "What you see is what you get—no 'bull,' as we used to say in the Marines, in a slightly different way," says his longtime spiritual adviser and close friend Fr. Ray Doherty '51 SSE, who was campus chaplain in Flanagan's student days and joins the Flanagan family for many holidays.
A man who always puts family first, Flanagan considers Saint Michael's community to be firmly in his family circle. This "family" bond is also literal, given that his younger brother and sister followed him to Saint Michael's, and four of his five children are alumni. Chris, his oldest, has four kids of his own and is an elementary school principal; his daughter Katie went to Middlebury College and works in admissions for the Community College of Vermont; his son Patrick is an aspiring actor who just got married; Michael is a teacher in St. Albans, Vermont, and his youngest, Megan, graduated with the Class of 2011. "To watch the wonderful experience she had was tremendous," Flanagan says. "It made me proud to be a member of this community and an alumnus," he says. "It reminded me how this is a place worth sustaining and growing."
"It's a privilege to be a 63-year-old connected with the same family I started with as a 17-year-old."
Son of a newspaper circulation man and the first in his family to head off to college, Flanagan says when he first began looking at colleges as a high school senior, a guidance counselor gave him a list of schools he should write to for catalogs, and one was Saint Michael's. He remembers wistfully how much simpler admissions were in 1967, but he doesn't let that mire him in the past. He was the founding force behind several admissions initiatives that are now signature Saint Michael's programs, including the Book Award and "Nominate a Knight" program. The first awards good students who have done community service—1,900 last year across the U.S.—with alumna Luong Ung's book First They Killed My Father. It's been a successful way to to raise awareness of the college, its values and its accomplished alumni, as has the other initiative, which asks each faculty, staff, student and alumni to refer good prospects to the college.
After 40 years at the helm, Flanagan still feels fortunate to be getting Saint Michael's the attention it deserves. "I've been blessed," he says. "I've had the opportunity to be able to stay in a place that's really a part of who I am." He's looked at other opportunities through the years, but it always came down to asking, "Do I believe in the mission of this place, can I be as passionate about what they're doing as I am here? Because it would be hard to do this work if I didn't feel the way that I do about Saint Michael's."
Flanagan thinks the cycles of the admissions year and the variety of his job have helped him to stay fresh and interested for so long. He has admitted several students in recent years who are the children of alumni he also admitted, although so far no grandchildren, which he says would be his surest cue to leave. "I think what has really kept me here is just the privilege to be a member of the Saint Michael's community," he says, "to be connected with the family that I started with as a 17-year-old person, and now as a 63-year old person to still be connected with that, that's a privilege. I love the people I work with."
He described his two favorite days of the year: "The first is when new students arrive and I greet them and they're nervous—so are the parents—but I can reassure them," he says. "And my second favorite is on graduation day. I try to sit in the front row and watch the students go by and see the success they've had. Invariably there's a few I took a chance on with special considerations, and they didn't let me down—so I can share vicariously just a little bit of the pride that their parents have as they watch their son or daughter graduate. To me, that's the greatest thing you can do—just watch them and say, 'Way to go.' Sometimes I'll hear years later from graduates I once admitted who just want to thank me for believing in them and taking a chance on them… It thrills me no end, but I say, 'they did it."