Teacher, principal, superintendent . . . LSSU President Tony McLain looks back on jobs well done
Posted: May 18th, 2014
Click here to read this story as it originally appeared in the Sault (Mich.) Evening News.
By RICHARD CROFTON
EDITOR, Sault (Mich.) Evening News
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – What does a 62-year-old person do who has been retired for six years as a school superintendent do in their spare time? Most would enjoy life and time with family, but then there are those who feel indebted to public education. In the case of Tony McLain, you come back as the “interim” president of Lake Superior State University.
What was supposed to be a temporary position has turned into a five-year stint for the former instructor. However, his time as the university’s leader is drawing to a close as he will officially end his tenure on June 30 at the age of 67.
Pres. McLain addresses his final LSSU commencement on May 2
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“Five years ago we were in a state of flux,” said Board of Trustees Chairman Pat Egan. “Tony and Mrs. McLain told us they would do whatever they could to help us out. He brought stability.”
However, before McLain could help give the university direction, he needed to be hired. That was a unique — and some may say strange — process.
McLain and his wife, Missy, had worked for a long time with Habitat for Humanity, even while he was the superintendent for Sault Area Schools. After his retirement from the public school system, he worked much more for the organization.
“When I retired, I wanted to stay fully retired and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and ended up becoming president,” the president said, reclining in is office of a few more weeks. “I did a lot of the electrical and plumbing work.”
However, something strange happened to him in 2009.
“I was called one day to meet with some (LSSU) board members.
They called and said they would like to discuss the LSSU job with me. I said I had to change and was told I didn’t have to,” McLain said as this would become the norm during the process. “I went in and met with this committee and I was dressed in Levis and a work shirt.”
McLain said he went home that night and told his wife about the interesting discussion he had, but he didn’t think it was viable. Little did the president know what was going to happen next.
Tony and Melissa McLain
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“I got up the next morning and was working at the ReStore building. My phone rings and I answer it and they said we think you are the right person for the job and could you come up to Lake State and talk to us,” he said. “I told them I needed to change. They said I didn’t have time for that.”
So, McLain left working in the lot behind the ReStore — dirty and sweaty — and went to meet with what he thought would be the same committee he met with the day before.
“I walked in and it was Board of Trustees meeting. There were a 100 people there. I walked up to the Crow’s Nest and said to myself this is going to be interesting,” McLain said. “I opened the door and went in and got motioned to sit at the board table. I think some people thought the air conditioning had broken down.”
At that point, the retiree’s life was about to take a major turn.
“They introduced me as the president. I told my wife later that some people must have thought ‘Oh my God, they just named the custodian the president of the university,’” he said. “The board chairman explained and said ‘We called down to Dr. McLain who was working at Habitat for Humanity and we said Lake Superior State needs you and could you put down your hammer and come up here and help us.’”
Thus, McLain began what he thought would be a short tenure.
“They voted to make me interim president. We both had an understanding it would be short term — maybe months or even a year,” he said.
Egan agreed with that timeframe as well.
“We said we need you for at least six months,” he said. “His commitment was for six months and here we are five years later and it worked.”
“He was the right person at the right time,” Egan said. “Tony is a smart person. He knows what it takes to create a stable environment. He gave responsibility to people who needed more responsibility. He let them do their jobs and do their jobs well for the past five years. The difference of where we are to where we were is 180 degrees because of his stability and his involvement.”
McLain said once he started at LSSU, he knew more time would be needed.
“After being here, I went to the board and told them we may want to rethink this a little bit. We had a lot of turnover. There was so much instability in the management area. My observation was is you don’t need another presidential search,” he said. “We had a $2.5 million deficit, all this turmoil that came from a president who didn’t fit the university, changeover at the provost level and the state was free falling in 2009. There was considerable discussion at the state level about closing Lake State down.”
The president said if he would walk away after a year, their university would be involved in more uncertainty as a presidential search would have take place.
“We discussed another year or so. I wasn’t interested in working full-time,” McLain said. “What happened is after eight months to a year, I got the Lake State fever and felt like it was just a part of me.
It is very challenging and very rewarding. I hung around for a while longer and before I knew it, five years was up.”
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED – Lake Superior State University Foundation Board chair Chuck Schmidt and executive director Tom Coates (left to right) hand off a ceremonial check to LSSU president Tony McLain and Trustee chair Pat Egan on May 2 in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. The $3.6 million amount caps a three-year capital campaign that exceeded its goal to supplement a $9 million State appropriation to renovate LSSU's South Hall into the new Lukenda School of Business. Construction runs through this year into 2015, when the building opens for classes in the fall. (LSSU/John Shibley)
A print-resolution photo that runs with this caption can be found by clicking here.
McLain said he has never thought about his accomplishments, but did mention a few things he felt proud of doing.
“One would be making people in Lansing aware of how important the university is in this region. We now are referred to as the gem that has not quite been discovered,” he said. “Before, there was talk of closing the university. You don’t hear that talk anymore at all.”
He said a good example of that is the renovations to South Hall. “This is a good example that the state is willing to invest in the university and that is a good sign,” the president said.
McLain said shared governance is another good concept that has been put into place.
“It wasn’t my idea. It had been floating around as a concept when I arrived,” he said. “We need something to counteract what might be changing leadership and I saw shared governance as that possibility.”
The president said he came to the realization that LSSU probably will serve as a training ground for upper management.
“We are probably going to be a break-in university for higher levels of management. I don’t know how we can get out of that. It is just one of our realities. They get good and then get an offer they can’t refuse,” he said. “When a new president comes in, (shared governance) makes his job much easier. When decisions land on your desk, they already have been vetted by the university. That was one of the best ways to find consistency in leadership even though some of the senior leadership may change from time to time.”
McLain said there are projects he wanted to accomplish, but that will be up to the university personnel to do in the future, if they so choose.
“We have space needs for two major programs: aquatics research lab and criminal justice and fire science program,” he said. “In the Norris Center, you could see guys in full fire suits crawling down the hallway. Door frames are all beat up because of the tanks. There is no storage.”
He also said with the shooting ranges being indoor, no bullets can be fired.
“These are two critical things the university is going to face in the next five years,” McLain said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
The outgoing president said he has never thought about how he would like to be remembered at LSSU.
“I never thought about. I was just too busy doing things,” he said. “I would like think that I was a student’s president. There are so many students here I have worked with and got to know.”
McLain said he saw a student at this year’s graduation that graduated several years ago.
“He was instrumental in starting a wrestling club. I remember when he came to me and asked if he could do it,” the president said. “Two years after he graduated, he is standing there. I have gotten invited to students weddings.”
There was another story McLain likes telling.
“One night we were having a formal dinner at president’s house with executives of Essar Steel,” he said. “While having this formal dinner, the front door pops open and three ladies from the sorority next door were returning some dishes they had borrowed from us. There was buzz around the table. Next year we were over on their side of the river and they still remembered that.”
McLain helps LSSU fraternity push tub across UP for a benefit cause
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“I am going to miss a lot of it — the students — the people you get to work with here are such high character high class people,” the outgoing president said. “That is the part I am going to miss.”
McLain told a story about going out to dinner with his wife this year.
“Missy and I went around this last year. We walked into the Quarterdeck one night for dinner … got our food and sat down.
Two students asked if they could sit down with us and we had an interesting conversation,” he said. “That is what it is all about.”
He never believed it would last this long, but it did. And now the end is here.
“There was never a discussion or intent where it was said let’s do this for five years. I had a great time,” he said. “I am 67 years old. I have some students who have retired. I thought maybe I should get serious about this.”
Even though he is leaving full-time employment, McLain said he would still like to do things for the university.
“I hope there are a couple things I could do with the university, but I definitely don’t want a job,” he laughed. “It is like being a part of the family. Will I still be a Laker? Very definitely.”
McLain still plans on coaching high school track at the Sault and he said Habitat for Humanity wants him back.
“I am not going to be bored at all,” he said. “I want to spend some time with my family. I have two grandsons … and typical grandpa stuff.”
The president also wants to get back outside.
“I am a very avid hunter and fisherman. This has been a real crimp in both my hunting and fishing expeditions,” he said. “I also have a nice garden on Sugar Island.”
Even though he says he is done leading the university, an option may still exist to allow him to come back. “If I ever came back, it truly would be for months,” he laughed. “We would have that spelled out.”
At McLain’s last Board of Trustees meeting a week ago, Egan complimented the president for the job he has done.
“We hope our time here and tenure here is that the institution a little bit better than when we got here. For Dr. McLain, the institution is much better as he leaves here,” he said. “He put in a lot of time and effort where it needed to be put.”
After the meeting, Egan added several more thoughts.
“They get their life back which is something they need to do. We really, really appreciate the things he and Missy did,” the trustees chairman said. “One of the great things about him and the situation — he knew and he understands now is the time for somebody else to give it a direction. It is going to take some energy and a new set of eyes.”
McLain said he is appreciative of the opportunity and said the biggest honor he received was having the Board of Trustees name a scholarship in Missy’s and his name.
“After 40-some years, I have not repaid my debt (to public education). It changed my life. How do I repay it?,” he asked. “It made all the difference in the world to me.”