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Long workdays and nights interspersed with crises and transformative moments are typical of life in the student affairs arena. But balancing professional responsibilities with personal time with students, family, and friends make life joyful, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Richard T. Hage. Without doubt, his plate is always full.
After nearly 35 years at Plymouth State University, Dick recently retired to part-time PSU employment, helping in the admission office and developing and growing a broader international student constituency on campus.
Working with people, particularly students and his staff, is Hage’s favorite aspect of his complex responsibilities. “Everything you do impacts people,” he says. “And that’s the nature of education, so I can’t imagine people working at a place like this, which like any good institution is transformative of lives, and not finding joy. You see such amazing change and growth and development, and lifelong relationships grow out of that. There is something special about the value set of PSU people—whether folks who work here or families whose young students come to school here,” Hage says.
Present and former students and colleagues think there is something pretty special about Hage, too. Positive descriptors stick to him: admirable, caring, professionally nurturing, responsible, reflective, mentor, magnanimous, passionate, compassionate, welcoming, energetic, storyteller, humorous—and always hungry ….
“What I remember most about Dick is his smiling face every single day … I can see him so clearly in my mind … his good humor and happiness were infectious,” says Theo Kalikow, former PSU dean and interim president who is now president of the University of Maine at Farmington. “He was always the guy in our principal administrator (cabinet) meetings who would sit there very quietly, and then come out with an observation about how this would affect students, or he’d make a connection we hadn’t made, or he’d bring up an angle we hadn’t considered. I learned always to make sure we had heard what Dick had to say,” Kalikow recalls. “He helped us all make better decisions.”
“Of course that big, warm smile is just the first hint of the remarkable man behind it,” according to alumna and former residence hall director Eileen Stack ’86. “My three years working with Dick stand out as some of the most special of my life. Nurturing, prodding, motivating, supporting … he provided a foundation that allowed us to grow and experiment. He helped to refine and expand ideas. He encouraged creativity,” she says.
Jaimie Birge ’87 has had a career in education since earning his M.Ed. at Plymouth State while working as a residence director. He’s now President of Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. “I can’t tell you how many times I have been confronted by difficult decisions or crises and I’ve thought, ‘How would Dick react to this?’ He has had a persistent and effective influence on me throughout my life. I should have a wrist band, ‘WWDD—what would Dick do?’”
John Fischer ’78, another former hall director, would wear that wristband. Fischer says Dick has always been there for him throughout the years. “He was there around 1976 as Dean, placing nine of us on indefinite disciplinary probation for some hijinks in Blair Hall (Fischer reiterates his innocence!). He was there again in 1978 offering me a job at Grafton Hall, which gave my career in education direction. He was there to guide, advise, and ask the tough questions young professionals need to reflect on. I didn’t necessarily need to call Dick over the years to ask his advice because I was always able to ask myself, ‘how would Dick Hage handle this?’”
At Plymouth State, Andrew McLean ’07 was involved with student senate, PSU volunteers and a plethora of other activities. Now he is a residence director and master’s degree candidate at the University of Southern Maine.
McLean says that as a first-year student he thought students simply went to class, got involved in a student organization, and graduated after four years. “I had no idea that Dick and the student affairs staff would have such a formidable impact on my personal growth and on who I have become today.
“There were times when Dick challenged us and there were times when Dick praised us, but we always knew that he supported us in our quest to learn and grow. With Dick, I knew that I mattered. He always introduced himself as ‘Dick,’ never paying attention to his status as vice president. It showed those around him that your title isn’t everything—what really makes the difference is the investment that you put into your relationships with others.”
Joe McCool ’91 is struck by just how many collegiate residential life and student affairs professionals hail from Plymouth, and how Hage helped shape and inspire each and every one of them. He says, “Dick has had a hand in improving the lives of students on many college and university campuses across the country—countless people whose student experiences were made better because of the positive impact Dick had on Plymouth graduates who went on to model his spirit, enthusiasm, and service. Dick has been the face of Plymouth State not just because he has served for so long, but because he carried himself and conducted himself as a friend to every student, a supporter of every student, and a hero and role model to those of us who served in student affairs, and those who have tried to replicate his genuine service orientation in many walks of life.”
In 2006, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators honored Hage with the Scott Goodnight Award for Outstanding Performance as a Dean or Vice President. This award recognizes demonstrated, sustained professional service in student affairs work, high-level competency in administrative skills, innovative response in meeting students’ varied and emerging needs, effectiveness in developing junior staff members, and leadership in community and university affairs.
Asked if students ever disappoint him, Hage says no. “I made some dumb decisions in my life, too. It isn’t disappointment, it’s opportunity. It’s a matter of recognizing and acknowledging that people make choices, and not always the best choices. Our job is to help them understand that there are consequences for those actions; that we love them, and support them and help them learn from the mistake—to get through it and move on to a better place in their lives.”
Students who have previously gotten themselves in some kind of a mess, made amends, and turned it around, successfully come back to Plymouth State, according to Hage. “Some of them end up being our best students, our greatest advocates for the University, great ambassadors and very productive citizens,” he says.
Dick tells of a student he had to suspend just one month into the student’s Plymouth State career. “A few weeks after I suspended him I called him up and asked him if he would join me at a Board of Trustees meeting, and he did. He talked about how students get into bad situations. He stood up and says, ‘One month ago Dean Hage suspended me from Plymouth State.’ You could have heard a pin drop as he went on to describe how that action was transformative in his life. Now he has a master’s degree.”
Gail Stone has worked in student affairs at Plymouth State since 1977, first as a residence director and apartment manager and then as associate director of residential life, retrofitting residence halls, purchasing furniture, and locating equipment for the dining hall and satellite sites.
Stone describes Hage as passionate about the things he does, respectful and compassionate, and says Hage always credits Dean E. James Smith, Hage’s predecessor and mentor. “I hope that in everything I do, I treat people with respect, even if I disagree with them, because I saw Dick do that,” Stone says. “He teaches that students are our reason for being here, and the need to make their experience here a valuable one. So I know that the behind-the-scenes things that I do to make their experience here special, for example sprucing up their living environment, are important. I want to come to work and make a difference even if it is not visible to people.”
Darlene Brill has been Hage’s right hand throughout his years as dean and vice president. He can’t say enough about her, nor she, him. “He supervises by making you want to do a good job,” Brill says. “You don’t just come in and go to work—you want to do a good job. He’ll write little notes about something you have done: ‘nice letter,’ or ‘well put,’ or ‘thanks, nice job.’ That’s very reinforcing … he appreciates that need. People are proud to be a part of his organization. Ut prosim (That I may serve)—he expects that commitment from people—he models it.”
And echoing a nearly universal comment, Brill says, “And you always remember how much he eats … can he fill up a plate! You better have food for a meeting. He can smell food from across the hall.”
Birge related a story about being a young residence director having lunch with Dick and several other residence hall staff at a restaurant. “I slowed down eating a little and the next thing I knew Dick asked, ‘are you going to finish that?’ What was I supposed to say? I was a young employee … Dick finished my meal more than one time during my Plymouth years.”
Terri Potter, director of the Hartman Union Building, shares this anecdote:
“In the summer of 2007 a small group from Plymouth went to Peru to visit the coffee farm that supplies Plymouth’s Café Monte Alto with beans. At one lunch Dick was intrigued by a bowl being delivered to a nearby table. The woman and her companion to whom the soup had been served really couldn’t help but notice his keen observation of her meal. The language barrier prohibited him just shouting out that he’d like to taste her meal, so Dick smiled and held up his spoon. Mind you, these were complete and total strangers. He got up, went to their table, and tasted her soup. The amazed diners smiled and giggled at him as he made grand gestures about how amazing the soup was before he ordered some for himself.”
Potter has witnessed more than Hage’s curious food habits, though. “So much of the community culture that Plymouth State is known for is attributable (I think), in a million small ways, to the example Dick sets. He keeps the tone respectful, encourages civility, and always rolls up his shirtsleeves and works among his colleagues—not above them and not by using power of position. I believe Dick’s real power lies in his extremely discriminating use of it. He has enough self-confidence and assuredness that he doesn’t get ruffled at being challenged. Often the discourse in Student Affairs meetings is full of passionate opposition to an issue. I value that I work in a culture where I can voice my concerns, and they are heard and encouraged.”
Former PSU Registrar Nick Mathis aptly summed up what people from across the years think about Dick Hage when he says, “Dick is the most magnanimous person I’ve met. More than anyone, he has a generous willingness to forgive wrongs and a great-hearted ability to overlook flaws and missteps of those around him. Dick just moves on without resentment or malice, ever optimistic that we all follow the better angels of our nature.”
Hage will treat his new responsibilities with the same magnanimity. Why internationalize? Hage says it’s not about retention, it’s about integration and providing the best possible experience we can, both educationally and socially. He says the initiative will be good for all our students to experience, not just the international students … to rub shoulders with people from different cultures, and to understand different value sets. It’s not just a matter of functioning more effectively in a business world, or for economic gain, but for enriching one’s life.
“When you have an opportunity to break bread with people who look different from you, who think differently from you, and you get to look beyond the sparkle of their eye and into the beauty of their heart, what really ends up happening is that you discover a whole new commonality that you never knew existed. It begins to break down stereotypes, it begins to challenge prior experiences that built your current belief systems and you grow as a person. It causes some self-reflection and indeed, not much changes without reflection.”
Hage has an intricate, mosaic-like artwork on his office wall made completely of butterfly wings, given to him by a former student from Benin, Honore Houdegbe. Houdegbe, his brother Octave, and his cousin all were students at Plymouth State who were close to Dick Hage. Octave returned to Benin and opened Houdegbe North American University, the first private university in his country. In 2008, Hage was asked to speak at the university, and was given an honorary degree. He continues working to establish student exchanges between PSU and Houdegbe.
One of the greatest and most pleasant challenges for Hage is keeping up with e-mail from prior students and staff members. “You know, they feel good about this place,” he says. Correspondents, take heart. You haven’t heard the last from Dick Hage. And keep an eye on your plate.