Father Salmi takes the helm

Mon, 11/16/2009 - 10:15am
Fr. Richie Salmi, S.J.
Since the Rev. Richard P. Salmi, S.J., arrived on campus in June, he has made quite an impression on the Spring Hill College community.

The Cleveland native describes himself as “a little irreverent.” He’s unequivocal, witty, energetic, approachable and student-focused. As the new president, he is frank about the challenges that lie ahead, but he is enthusiastic about the College’s opportunities for growth.

‘Destined for priesthood’

The middle child of seven children, Salmi grew up in a Cleveland suburb. His mother, Rita, was Irish-Catholic; and his father, Ray, who worked on a tugboat, converted to Catholicism to marry his mother. Heads of a “lovingly chaotic” household, Salmi’s parents made sacrifices so each of their children could receive a Catholic education.

Young Salmi would “play Mass,” using his mother’s rolling pin to flatten Wonder Bread into hosts, and wearing his bathrobe backwards to create a vestment. “I guess maybe those were some early indications that I was destined for priesthood,” he said with a grin.

After Salmi graduated high school in 1969, he attended Ohio University, where he majored in communications. Although the university is a public school, Salmi studied under two Jesuit professors who were working on their doctorates.

As a junior, Salmi and four of his friends accompanied a Jesuit on a weeklong retreat in Chicago, an experience that helped Sami discern his calling. “I said, ‘OK, I’m not going to fight this. I should take a look at it. This is what I think I ought to be doing,’” he recounted.

Salmi applied and was accepted into the Society of Jesus. To celebrate his acceptance, his friends threw him a party at which they sported construction paper Roman collars. A six-foot statue of Mary from the parish next door served as the centerpiece.

Salmi’s family wasn’t terribly surprised by his decision to enter the Jesuits. However, his mother was torn. “I don’t think she exactly thought my being a priest was the best use of my college degree,” Salmi said, “but she came around, and she was very proud and always very supportive.”

Salmi graduated from Ohio University in 1973 and entered the Jesuits that same year. He taught communication arts, including video production and filmmaking, at a small, Jesuit high school in Toledo, Ohio. The Society encouraged Salmi to obtain a master’s degree in speech-communications from Bowling Green State University, where he graduated in 1981.

“It became clear to me, though, as I went on to study theology, that the Jesuits who were involved in mass media were all leaving the Society of Jesus. I think it was difficult, because there was no support,” he explained. “So, they were all kind of lone rangers, off doing this television production and filmmaking, and no one really understood them.”

Salmi was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1982, and he earned a Master of Divinity in theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley the following year. During this time, he became more interested in the Society’s stance on social justice than in mass media.

An advocate for students

For two years, Salmi coordinated students’ service projects at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. He then had the opportunity to work with campus ministry at John Carroll University, doing the same line of work at the college level. From 1985 to 1990, he served as a campus minister, directed volunteer programs, and worked as a residence hall chaplain.

“It was my work with campus ministry at John Carroll that solidified that I wanted to go on and get a doctorate in higher ed., so I could work with student affairs in particular,” Salmi said.

Following the five years at John Carroll, Salmi was assigned to Kampala, Uganda for six months as part of his Jesuit tertianship. He worked with AIDS patients at Nysambia Hospital, as a health care provider, social worker and priest. The experience was “life-changing” for Salmi, who had lost several friends to the disease.

“We were out treating patients, and the only things we had in our medical bags were aspirin, multivitamins and Imodium. That was it,” he related. “So, you can imagine, we couldn’t really do a whole lot. … But, it was a beautiful experience. I met wonderful people, and learned a great deal about myself.”

The next few years, Salmi worked on his doctorate and in 1994 earned a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Boston College. That year he returned to John Carroll as vice president for student affairs. Accomplishments at the university included a major expansion of the student center and the varsity athletic complex.

During his second year as vice president, a group of students approached Salmi about forming a support group for gay and lesbian students. The administration was nervous, but Salmi advocated on the students’ behalf. “These students need support, just like any other students. If we want to help students to succeed, we can’t pretend that they’re not here or that they don’t have concerns of their own,” he argued.

Salmi won the battle, and the students were permitted to form a campus group. “Sometimes as an institution it’s hard to step outside our comfort zones, because we’ve done it this way forever and it’s worked,” he said. “So, I was very proud of the way the university stepped outside its comfort zone to meet the needs of these students.”

Student affairs professionals working at Catholic institutions are often caught in difficult situations, Salmi explained. He and Dr. Sandy Estanek, a high school friend of Salmi’s who worked at nearby Ursuline College, initiated the Institute for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities. The institute was designed to address these complex issues and to educate student affairs professionals in Catholicism.

Out of the institute sprang the Association for Student Affairs of Catholic Colleges and Universities, a summer conference that covered topics such as campus ministry immersion programs, disciplinary issues in housing, and safe sex within a Catholic context.

“It showed people that you can discuss these things and still be true to being Catholic. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Salmi said. “In fact, once you get into the Church’s documents, often times we found the work we were doing was very complementary to what the Church was asking us to do.”

In 2002 Salmi took his passion for student affairs to Loyola University Chicago. As vice president for student affairs, he managed numerous areas of student life including student activities, residence life and intercollegiate athletics.

During his tenure, Loyola nearly doubled its resident population from 2,200 to 4,100 students. Salmi restructured the residence life program and implemented Living Learning Communities in first-year residence halls. He also spearheaded an award-winning campus coalition to address alcohol misuse and abuse.

“We were able, with a lot of hard work and imagination and ingenuity, to take what had been a commuter school and make it a nice residential campus,” he said. “I’m proud of the fact that we were able to add a lot of programs and address student needs and to form a real community. The campus had not been really unified, and now they are a real campus community.”

Furthermore, Salmi developed a 10-year strategic plan for Loyola’s athletic department to improve the NCAA Division I program. He supervised the renovation of the student fitness and recreation facility, and prepared to launch a campaign to improve the varsity athletic facilities.

When Salmi joined the university, Loyola had cut its deficit in half, yet the deficit was still $17 million. Salmi credits President Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., and his administration’s teamwork with turning around the university’s financial position.

“What I’ve learned in administration is that you develop your team, and you empower them to do their best work,” he said. “You have to take leadership and step up, but it’s a lot easier to do that when you’ve got a group who really believe in the mission of the college and are willing participants in living out that mission.”

‘My life is all about the College’

Garanzini recognized in Salmi leadership capability and nominated him to interview for the position as president of Spring Hill College. In September 2008, the College announced that Salmi would take the reins as president, following the retirement of the Rev. Gregory F. Lucey, S.J.

“Ten years ago, I remember saying, ‘I don’t ever want to be a president.’ Be careful what you say,” Salmi warned. “But, I looked at Spring Hill and saw that this is a college with a lot of potential – and also a lot of challenges, but I’m convinced that we can meet them.”

When Salmi visited Spring Hill, he was struck by the beauty of the campus, the commitment to a quality education, the enthusiasm of the faculty, and the professionalism of the student body.

Last fall he met with a group of students on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to walk into a room and see a group of young men and women in coats and ties and dresses. I thought, oh, this truly is the South!” he exclaimed. “I was both taken aback and impressed not only by how well dressed but also how well prepared they were for that interview. They asked very good questions, and we had a very good conversation.”

Back in Cleveland and Chicago, Salmi’s family and friends were shocked that he was moving to “rural” Alabama. Salmi joked that he spent a lot of time convincing his family that Mobile has interstates, cars, stores and restaurants. “It is a small city, but it has big ideas and big plans, and I like that,” Salmi said.

As a new president, Salmi has spent much of his time meeting with each department on campus and forming relationships with the Mobile community. He is focused on addressing the challenges the College is facing, particularly its financial situation.

“It’s no secret. We’ve all been impacted by the recession,” Salmi said. “The top priorities are financial stability and hopefully growth. My hope is that we can get this school back on solid financial ground, so we can start looking at compensation and programmatic improvements. We need to continue to improve all of our programs, but that takes financial resources.”

Salmi is a fervent supporter of athletics and hopes to see the College improve athletically. Jim Hall joined the staff in October as the new director of athletics and recreation, and in 2010 the College is moving to the Southern States Athletic Conference. “I’d like to see Spring Hill winning championships again. It’s like anything else – if we’re going to do it, we should do it well,” he said.

Athletics is important for a number of reasons, Salmi explained. Student-athletes learn leadership skills and time management, as well as serve as ambassadors for the College. Athletics helps with recruitment and retention, not only for athletes interested in playing sports but also for students who enjoy being fans of winning teams. Athletics strengthens alumni ties and promotes Spring Hill in the Mobile community and the cities in which the College competes.

Often Salmi is seen riding his bike around campus. Since becoming the College president, he has little personal time; but his early morning bike rides and workouts are his time to think and pray.

Salmi said he expected that his first years as president would require a lot of hard work, “and I would say that’s proving to be true,” he said. “There are long days, but they are rewarding days. My life has been the College these last 90 days, and that’s OK. I didn’t expect otherwise. I’m happy and honored to know that my life is all about the College. The Jesuits talk about AMDG, for the greater glory of God – that’s what it’s about.”

Following Lucey as president, Salmi inevitably is compared to his predecessor. “Father Lucey set the bar for being president pretty high,” Salmi said. “We’re clearly very different people with different personalities. Occasionally, someone will say, ‘You have big shoes to fill,’ and that’s OK. I kind of knew that.”

Salmi said he aspires to emulate the leadership qualities of St. Ignatius Loyola. “I hope my leadership style is Ignatian,” he expressed. “Ignatius was truly a person for others. Ignatius saw God in all things. Ignatius formed a company of men to help him live out the vision that he had. He was not afraid to beg and to ask people for help. But, he was not afraid to articulate what his vision was for the Society of Jesus. He also took risks. Some people thought he was crazy for the things that he did.”

When asked what people might be surprised to know about him, Salmi contemplated for a moment before lifting his pant leg to reveal his ankle. “I wanted to do something special for my 25th anniversary of being a priest,” he said, almost whispering. “So, I got a tattoo of the seal of the Society of Jesus.”

Then he howled with laughter.