MIDDLEBURY — “His timing has always been impeccable,” laughed John Tenny, a Middlebury selectman.
It figured, Tenny joked, that in the first week of January — one of the coldest months of the year in Middlebury — John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College, would have his eye on a warmer clime.
The friendly jibe came in the wake of McCardell’s announcement last week that he and his wife, Bonnie, are picking up stakes after 34 years in Vermont. McCardell on July 1 will take the helm at Sewanee: The University of the South, where he will serve as vice chancellor and president of the 1,400-student liberal arts school.
Though the news prompted congratulations, the McCardells’ decision to leave Middlebury, according to friends and colleagues, is a bittersweet one. The McCardells have been, during their time in Vermont, strong supporters of both the college and the community.
“While John McCardell has always been a fierce, loyal supporter of Middlebury College and a defender of its goals and needs … he has also well recognized the needs of a healthy community and tried to work to bring those two things together. I certainly salute him for that,” Tenny said. “That’s a legacy that carries over today.”
COLLEGE ON THE HILL
McCardell said that it would be his students — past and present — he’ll miss most after leaving Middlebury.
And students, for their part, expressed similar sadness about McCardell’s impending departure.
Senior Anthony Adragna, a history major at the college, has taken two classes with McCardell and chose the professor to serve as his academic advisor in the department. He said that one of McCardell’s most remarkable traits is his willingness to make time in his busy schedule for students.
“Regardless of the situation, he offered great advice and listened attentively to whatever was on my mind,” Adragna wrote in an email.
Adragna remembered meeting McCardell once for a conversation at The Grille, a popular lunchtime spot on campus. As the two hunted for a table, McCardell was stopped by a number of acquaintances, and in each case Adragna marveled that his professor not only remembered everyone’s name, but also asked about their families and engaged in thoughtful conversation.
“He truly is a man of the community,” Adragna wrote. “While the departure of Professor McCardell is an enormous loss for the Middlebury community, I wish him the best as he sets out on the next chapter is his life. Sewanee is a very lucky school.”
Paul Monod, the chair of the history department in which McCardell teaches, said he expected McCardell would bring to Sewanee the same vision he brought to Middlebury in the early 1990s.
During McCardell’s 13 years as president at Middlebury, he established the Commons residential system, led a successful capital campaign, and oversaw the addition of several significant campus facilities, including the 220,000-square-foot science center that was later named by the board of trustees the John M. McCardell Jr. Bicentennial Hall.
“If you want his legacy, look around you. It’s everywhere. It’s not just the buildings. It’s the programs, everything from international studies (to) environmental studies,” Monod said. “It’s very uncommon for a college president to be brave, and he was brave.”
TOWN AND GOWN
McCardell’s influence extended beyond the borders of the campus during his time as president at the college. Tenny was elected to the selectboard in 1995, three years after McCardell took over as president. For the next nine years, Tenny said, the two worked together extensively, and Tenny now counts the man among his friends.
Tenny credits McCardell with encouraging a town-gown relationship built on communication and trust.
“It was during his administration that we were able to build a working relationship that was productive for both town and college,” Tenny said. “That really had not existed before.”
It was also during McCardell’s tenure that town and college officials reached the first gift agreement — an arrangement under which the college provides financial assistance directly to the town, a tradition that continues today.
In the first year that gift came to $1 million, an amount that went into the town’s general fund to defray expenses.
Meanwhile, both John and Bonnie McCardell have been lauded for their community service in Middlebury, a tradition that began long before McCardell took over as college president.
Bonnie McCardell has been a leader in childcare and family service, both statewide and in Middlebury. She served as a co-director at the Mary Johnson Children’s Center from 1985 to 1992. She developed the first childcare fund in Vermont that was a component of the Vermont Community Foundation, and went on to serve as the first director of the statewide Building Bright Futures Council.
“Bonnie, first of all, is very dedicated,” said Barbara Saunders, a co-director at Mary Johnson who worked with Bonnie McCardell at the children’s center. “Mary Johnson would not be the organization it is today if Bonnie McCardell had not been here. She set a tone of excellence and of very high standards for our work with children. That’s still part of who we are and what we do. She was a leader in this field in every sense of the word.”
The McCardells have also stepped forward as leaders in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury. John McCardell served on the church’s vestry and as a senior warden, led the search committee that hired a new rector, and has been involved in parish adult education programs, said Reverend Terry Gleeson, the rector at St. Stephen’s, and Bonnie McCardell’s community service has also played a major role in the church community.
“Bonnie’s absence will be felt perhaps even more profoundly among us,” said Gleeson. “She has been a tireless leader and participant in our outreach and mission programs, (and) an advocate for disadvantaged families, the poor and homeless.”
Strong supporters of and donors to the United Way and Live United movement, the McCardells also served as co-chairs of the annual fund-raising campaign in 2005 and 2006. Since then, they’ve been leaders in the Robert Frost Leadership Society, a group of donors who give at least $1,000 each year to United Way of Addison County. That group, made up of more than 250 donors, makes up half of the United Way’s yearly goals for donations.
McCardell was humble about his departure, and said he and Bonnie hope to maintain their ties to Middlebury.
“We know that the town and the college got along perfectly well without us up until 1976,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that friendships can withstand a thousand-mile separation. It’s not like we’re moving off the face of the earth, though some people may think moving to Tennessee may come as close as you can to that.”
But he’s also excited about the challenges that wait for him at Sewanee.
“It is a very good school that is not as well known as it should be or could be,” McCardell said, adding that the challenge of raising Sewanee’s profile was a significant part of what he sees his job at the college being in the years ahead.
He also pointed out that the school’s Southern history and ties to the Civil War, as well as its Episcopal traditions, appealed to him.
Looking back at his time at Middlebury, McCardell said he’s hard-pressed to point to the accomplishment of which he’s most proud. The growth of the campus — both in terms of new buildings and the expanded student body and programs — all added to the college’s reputation, he said, but that’s not what McCardell pinpoints as his greatest achievement.
Instead, he hopes that someone who attended the college years or decades ago would be able to recognize that the spirit of the place is intact.
“Yes, they’d look around and say, ‘Yeah, that building wasn’t here, or that building was there,’” McCardell said. “After you’ve been on campus for an hour, what I hope you would say and what I think you would say is, ‘Yes, I still recognize this place.’”
“This place,” according to McCardell, is a school where business still operates on a human scale, where human relationships matter the most, and where there is a sense of place ingrained in the college.
“I think we were not only able to maintain that, but to able to strengthen it as well,” he said.