Flyer News editors Hayley Clark and Grace Hagan got to sit down with new University of Dayton President Eric Spina. Here’s what he had to say.
Where did you grow up? And what about growing up in that specific environment or town contributed to how you have come to see the world?
That’s a great question and I could probably answer it for three hours, but I’ll be shorter than that. I grew up in Buffalo, just like a block outside of Buffalo. Both my parents were teachers. My mom was an art teacher and my dad was a science teacher then became a middle school principal. That’s the first side note I would make. I mean, having them both as educators early on caused me to really develop relationship with my teachers. I saw them as people.. As I look back on grammar school, I can still name every one of my teachers. […] But then the town itself, it’s interesting. The town is a gritty town. […] What I saw in Buffalo, kind of upfront, was a city that was still decaying, but that had a grit about it, and a resilience. We didn’t use those words at the time, but I think that becomes part of who people from Buffalo, and Dayton and Syracuse and Providence really are. They can see things falling apart around them but there’s an optimism that things around them are going to get better if you work hard. So my parents were really first generation in this country. Their parents came over to the United States and the immigrant perspective of ‘we’re fortunate to be here, we need to work hard, make a living, make life better for our kids.’ I mean that’s Buffalo. And that was my family.
Going back to your parents being first generation and having that immigrant mentality, is that something that you were aware of when you were growing up as a kid and did you, in hindsight, recognize that as something that shaped how you thought back then or is that something that impacted you later?
I’d would say probably when I got to be, early high school was when I started to realize that not everyone in the country, like my cousins who had grown up in very different places, were different and didn’t have that kind of experience. But the other thing I’ll just say, especially about my father, my father as a kid. His father was a cement mason in Buffalo, an immigrant cement mason. And he, this is the Depression, my dad was born in 1925. The Depression hits in 1929, and no one is building buildings. So my grandfather actually made religious statues by hand and painted them by hand and sold them door to door. And just hearing stories about the Depression from my father who said once a week they would have chicken, and that would be their only meat during the week. Other than that it was homemade bread and things from their garden. I mean, even at that young age I realized that we weren’t rich from a young family, but boy we had a lot compared to what my father had in the late 20s and early 30s.
How did your high school self inform the rest of our journey?
In general, I was with a group that was, you know, we weren’t the best athletes but we were athletes. We were some of the best students. We were involved in our churches and our community. As I think about my 5 or 6 closest friends, we came from similar kinds of families and had similar kinds of experiences, similar values. And you know, this environment of Conesious High School was really supportive, really focused on holistic education, much like UD is. And I can tell you now, that at my inauguration next April, I’d expect to have those 5 or 6 closest friends will be here.
Ok, so you studied engineering. Is that something you always knew was your passion, that you wanted to be an engineer? Or is that something you kind of like stumbled into?
Yeah, I stumbled into it. So I was good at math, I was good at science. I’m blue collar family, I mean quasi-blue collar family. Wanted to make sure I had a good job. People early on said, “Math. Science. You should be an engineer.” But really the thing I was best at and that I like the most was history and English. But I saw myself as, you know, I can be an engineer. They drive nice cars, hold down good jobs, good members of community, so I’m going to be an engineer. So off I went to Carnegie Mellon. […] I met some professors and I started doing research and so on but, you asked me [about] my three favorite courses at Carnegie Mellon: art history, origins of World War I, and origins of World War II, no, no statics and dynamics or mechanicals of materials or fluid mechanics, those were my least favorite courses.
You said you loved reading, whether there any books that really stuck with you? Either anywhere from elementary school through college and onward, that you really loved in particular?
Yeah, so here’s two books, two end of the spectrum. My father [reminded me] that the first book that I read, and I forgot how old I was but it was before you’re supposed to be able to read, was Go Dog Do. I loved it so much, they read it so much that I literally memorized it. Word by word, page by page, so Go Dog Go should be on the list for favorite books. And the other was, so I said I like history, I like World War II and post-World War II history. For me, as a kid, so you know ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, reading about World War II it was kind of romantic right? Because you read about Audi Murphy and how he saves thirteen comrades and this guy falls on a grenade and it’s like, heroic, and boy isn’t that great? And I was home, I think with Scarlet fever or, something, when I was seventeen, I was reading a book by William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of my war in the Pacific. He snuck into the Marines young, and he was I think on Tarawa when he was seventeen, and there was this one picture in the book of these pilings from a pier that are still there from World War II. And he described in just exquisite detail how he in his company were literally hiding behind these pilings as Japanese gunfire-machine gunfire was strafing the beach. And he was the age that I was. I tried to picture myself 7000 miles away from home, which I couldn’t do, on my own, which I couldn’t do, behind a piling having people shoot at me, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, there was nothing romantic about war. So I remember my dad came home that night and my dad fought in the European Theatre in World War II, Battle of the Bulge and some other battles. He was always reluctant to talk about the war because he hated it. And I said, “Boy dad, I guess war is not romantic, is it?” And for the first time, we actually had conversations about his experiences in the war. So, for me I have this really close bond with my father. That was–so you ask about books that have an influence, that’s one.
We had a conversation before about values. And sometimes the conversation around values can be very nebulous and hard to condense down to two or three sentences…what are some other things that you took from your parents?
Very clearly, to treat people with respect and to treat them well. Time to time, my dad would take me into school with him and, there was a short period where my mom was a substitute teacher at the school I went to. So, I was able to see my parents at work, which a lot of kids don’t. Just watching the way they treated others and the way others held them in high regard, is something that sticks with you. […] So whether it was the janitor in the school, or whether it was the vice principal. I saw my father treat them the same way and value them. So that’s something that– as I think about my leadership style to this point and what I want it to be at UD, that’s at the center of it.
UD students are often in the environment the Marianists have created, this beautiful, almost perfect place, which is sometimes seen as a bubble. But coming into this role as president, what challenges do you think UD faces?
Yeah, so it’s we reflect on something I heard yesterday, which is a part of this, this place is called ‘The UD Bubble’ and i think a bubble is not a good thing to live in. It’s good that there’s a UD community we are really connected to and comfortable in and so on. But you know, everything I’ve seen here, people don’t live in a bubble; they’re connected to the world, they’re overseas, they’re connected to the local community. So people really feel we’re in a bubble and they want to be in a bubble, that’s something we need to really work on. We need to connect for the benefit of our students, as well as for the benefit of society.
Describe your upcoming adventure at UD in six words.
Ooh, I said something the other day that was pity, how about, “Eric and UD: A Love Story”
If you’re interested on hearing more from Dr. Spina click here for the entire transcript.