WATERVILLE — When George Spann was named president of Thomas College in 1989, most of the members of the current undergraduate student body had not yet been born.

Now, as Spann nears retirement, he is leaving behind an academic institution that looks dramatically different from the one he began leading 23 years ago.

On Friday, an estimated 125 guests joined in a surprise ceremony for Spann, during which staff gave Spann a custom-built rocking chair and unveiled the name of the George and Marty Spann Student Commons, a new facility that has been made possible through Spann’s contributions.

Spann’s wife of 45 years, Martha “Marty” Spann, died in September of breast cancer.

Spann, 69, announced in November that he was stepping down as president, in order to spend more time with his grandchildren and doing volunteer work.

College in crisis

Guests who spoke yesterday painted a picture of an institution that was on the verge of bankruptcy until Spann took over and began making tough budget decisions that have turned around the college’s fortunes.

Spann said that two days after his first day as president in July, 1989, “the treasurer came in to essentially tell me that we didn’t have any money left.”

Todd Smith, co-chairman of the Board of Trustees agreed. “We couldn’t make payroll in the summer of 1989,” said Smith. “That’s how bad it was.”

To get through the crisis, board members floated a loan to Thomas so that it would have a chance to benefit from Spann’s leadership.

In the spring of 1990, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges put Thomas on probation, because of financial instability, said Barbara Brittingham, who also spoke to honor Spann yesterday.

Changing culture

But Thomas College underwent a dramatic transformation under Spann, from a small struggling school to a vibrant institution that is expanding rapidly.

Alumnus Mike Guarino, who founded Maine Wilderness Tours in Belgrade, said that Spann impressed him with a symbolic act that helped him understand that a cultural change was happening. When Guarino was a student, he saw Spann throw out a candy bar wrapper that had just been dropped on the ground by a student.

“I remember thinking at that moment, if my president gives a crap, so do I,” said Guarino. “I’ve been a Thomas guy ever since. And I thank you for that.”

Reflecting on his tenure, Spann said, “I was perhaps more cautious than I should have been in the years that followed, thinking what goes up could very well come down, which it has not.”

Track record of success

Thomas College has enjoyed many successes under Spann. By 2006, it was trumpeting a largest-ever enrollment of 234 full-time students. Today, it has more than 700 full-time students. Total enrollment is more than 1,000.

In the mid-’90s, Thomas became a leader in technology by equipping all dormitory rooms with an early form of Internet access, switching to a Web-based administrative system and entering into partnerships that allowed it to become the local Internet provider for much of central Maine.

Another significant achievement under Spann has been the adoption of what the college calls “the most extensive Guaranteed Job Placement Program in the United States,” under which students are guaranteed placement in the workforce. Today, approximately 94 percent of graduates are successfully placed into the workforce.

Under Spann, the college also diversified its academic offerings, adding new majors in computer management, software development, elementary education, psychology, criminal justice, computer science, communications, with new masters degrees and accelerated degrees.

The campus has also grown physically.

Since the year 2000, Thomas opened the 300-seat Laurette Ayotte Auditorium, the 100-bed Bartlett Hall resident hall, the 88-bed Thomas Townhouses residence hall and the $4.6 million, 38,000 square-foot Harold Alfond Athletic Center, among other buildings. In 2007, Thomas bought 50 acres, including most of Eaglewood Estates, to accommodate future expansion plans.

Spann has also helped to create relationships with some of the biggest names in education, technology, and business in the state, including Microsoft, the Harold Alfond Foundation, the Portland Sea Dogs the Mid Maine Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and Putnam Investments.

The Harold Alfond Foundation has been key in a massive fundraising campaign that sought to bring in $9.6 million.

Future

Incoming president Laurie Lachance, who is currently CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, will begin on July 1.

Spann said that he will be watching, with high expectations.

“I hope to come back 20 years from now and find that Thomas has progressed as much in the next 20 years as it has in the past 20 years,” he said.

Lachance told Spann that she pledged to be a responsible steward of the college that Spann helped to build.

“We all know the story of children being given two things by their parents, roots and wings. You gave Thomas roots, and now my job is to give it wings,” she said.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.