Presidential "Faith Healer" Retires at Lebanon Valley College

By Lawrence Biemiller

Annville, Pa. -- John Synodinos is standing at the east end of Lebanon Valley College's cozy academic quadrangle, looking across lush green grass. On his left is a handsome new library. Directly ahead are two enormous tents set up for the graduation of the largest class in years. "The first day I came," Mr. Synodinos is saying, "there was a parking lot where we're standing. The library was dilapidated. The church had a hole in its roof. There was no landscaping." Prospective applicants would come to visit, he says, and not even get out of their cars.

"The college had gone from 1,050 students to 820. People said, 'Let's pull in our belt,' but you can only do that so long before you eat at the very core of what makes a place great. In responding to adversity you have to take some chances."

Which is exactly what Lebanon Valley did. It took a chance on Mr. Synodinos, whom it had hired to conduct its second presidential search in three years, by asking him instead to become president himself. He and his wife, Glenda, took a chance by accepting -- though not until the board chairman had asked three times. It's no exaggeration to call the eight years since then extraordinary, or to say that people here have been reluctant to accept Mr. Synodinos's decision to retire now, when things are going so well and the college's future looks brighter than it has in years.

On paper, much of what Lebanon Valley has been able to achieve during Mr. Synodinos' term looks simple enough -- unless, like Mr. Synodinos, you try doing it all at once. After persuading a conservative Board of Trustees to borrow money to catch up on deferred maintenance, he tackled everything from mismatched carpeting in faculty members' offices to the need for a new library. He created a merit-scholarship program that attracted applicants. He raised faculty members' salaries. He spearheaded a $21-million capital campaign. "Because of John's efforts, we're at capacity," says Thomas C. Reinhart, the trustees' chairman. "The beds are filled and the faculty is overworked."

Along the way, Mr. Synodinos trimmed the board from 72 members to 32 and renovated an abandoned church to serve as a gallery and recital hall. He kept up his acting in a play about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; tried his hand at teaching; cheered baseball, basketball, and field-hockey teams on to championships; and made friends with everyone from legislators to the woman who cleans the library.

"Being a college president is like being head cheerleader at a football game -- you have to whip the crowd up," says Howard Applegate, a history professor. "He's passionate about his faculty, his students, and his college." Like others here, Mr. Applegate gropes for metaphors appropriate to Mr. Synodinos' energy and enthusiasm. "He touches you like a faith healer," Mr. Applegate says. "He and Glenda have done 25 years of work here in eight. I hate to see him go."

For his part, Mr. Synodinos makes the job sound almost easy. "You don't have to know the answers to be president," he says as he heads into the new library. "All you have to know is how to ask the questions." He shows off a curving wall that echoes the back of a nearby building, a painting that confronts anyone using the stairs, windows that frame attractive views. "We didn't even know we had views," he says, grinning.

At almost every turn he points out a plaque honoring a donor or a group of donors -- including many members of the college community. Acknowledging the contributions of others is a habit Mr. Synodinos picked up in his first college job, in the admissions office at the Johns Hopkins University. "Irene Davis, the registrar, told me, 'You can do anything you want at a university, as long as you're willing to take the blame if it fails and give the credit away if it succeeds.'"

Mr. Synodinos gives credit for much of his own success to his parents. He describes his father, a Baltimore restaurant owner who was born on the Greek island of Chios, as part Clark Gable and part Errol Flynn. "When Lindbergh flew across the ocean, he went out and bought an airplane. While we were growing up, all the people from my father's island who were in this country would get together for a week every summer, and one year he landed his plane on the picnic green. Do you know what it's like to be the son of a man like that?" After high school, Mr. Synodinos fulfilled his father's wish by enrolling in Baltimore's Loyola College, but he soon left to join the Army. He was overseas when his father was killed flying a volunteer Civilian Air Patrol mission. "He left me either $25,000 or a restaurant," says Mr. Synodinos. "There wasn't any question what I had to do. I went back to college."

Mr. Synodinos landed his first Hopkins job in 1960. Eight years later, Milton Eisenhower, the Hopkins president, suggested that he go to work for Keith Spalding, an Eisenhower protege who had become president of Franklin and Marshall College. Mr. Synodinos stayed at F.&M. for 16 years, 13 of them as vice-president for development. After he managed the search for Mr. Spalding's successor, he and his wife decided to become presidential-search consultants.

He had no intention of becoming a president himself, he says. But Lebanon Valley's case was tougher than most. Several candidates had turned the college down. In the meantime, the Synodinoses started to see its strengths -- its friendliness, its lack of pretense, its dedication to students who might not have traveled widely or graduated at the tops of their high-school classes, but who could benefit from a liberal-arts education nonetheless. "The second time, Tom Reinhart asked me in front of Glenda," Mr. Synodinos says. "The third time, Glenda said, 'They're gonna ask you again tomorrow. They're really wonderful people.'"

That was in 1988. Now Mr. Synodinos says he's eager to retire. "I don't want to be president anymore -- I just want to be John." As a president, he says, "you have to figure out how not to lose who you are -- people talk to you and half the time they're just talking to the president."

Two weeks ago the college named his successor: G. David Pollick, a former president of the Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. Synodinos, 61, tells anyone who asks that he's going to visit Ireland after he leaves office on June 30, but if he has any plan beyond that, he's kept it to himself. On the other hand, no one here can imagine him sitting idle for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Indeed, if his presidency has had a hallmark, it's been his endless stream of ideas. "There's been a lot of thinking out loud," says Deborah R. Fullam, a 1981 graduate of the college whom Mr. Synodinos groomed to become vice-president and controller. "We used to joke that he had an idea du jour, but he's open to debate. We felt safe in questioning him." His one big mistake -- turning two run-down buildings into condominiums that didn't sell -- worked out well in the end: So many students enrolled that year that he used the apartments as honors dormitories.

About the only thing Mr. Synodinos never tampered with is the kind of student who comes here. "We decided to be the best Lebanon Valley College we could be, but not abandon our market," he says. "Eighty per cent of our students come from small towns."

So it is that hundreds of parents and grandparents and siblings and friends gather the next morning under the two tents on the quadrangle to watch Mr. Synodinos preside over his last graduation. The band starts with "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and then "Amazing Grace" -- nothing too fancy. In the crowd are a few elegant suburban women in garden-party dresses, but many more fathers in ill-fitting sport jackets, and grandfathers for whom suspenders are what they've always worn, not some upper-class affectation. By the time the band begins a medley from Cats, a lesson seems to have taken shape among the floating notes and the milling parents: The great promise of American higher education isn't another elite graduation at Harvard, or Hopkins, or F.&M. The great promise, the one worth taking chances for, is in Annville and places like it -- anywhere that the beaming son of an immigrant restaurant owner can hand out 340 diplomas from a thriving college to the sons and daughters of farmers and nurses, machinists and waitresses. If there's a more hopeful story than that anywhere in the republic, it's hard to think what it might be.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published May 31, 1996.