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Remembering Clark University President Richard “Dick” Traina

By J. Stephen Teasdale, executive director, Main South Community Development Corporation

Many of us who have worked in Main South for more years than we may like to remember were deeply saddened this week to hear of the passing of former Clark University President Richard “Dick” Traina. Dick finally succumbed to the prostate cancer that he had been bravely fighting for the last few years. While the news of his passing was not unexpected, those of us who knew him, or had worked with him still felt a great sense of loss, for Dick was a man whose vision and sense of social justice fundamentally changed Clark’s relationship with its Main South neighbors and institutionalized Clark’s commitment to giving back to the community.

The mantra of giving back was integral to Dick’s philosophy of the role Clark should play in the community. It may be surprising to some but Dick was not someone who had grown up in a life of privilege. Growing up in challenging circumstances in San Francisco he saw a lot of his own background in the kids of Main South and wanted to create the kind of opportunities for them that had allowed him the chance to succeed in life. The definining feature of Dick’s presidency and a testimony to his character was that he believed that Clark had a moral imperative to be a socially responsible neighbor. It was the power of this belief and his leadership abilities that led to his philosophy becoming institutionalized at Clark.

Upon becoming President one of Dick and Polly’s first acts was to join Saint Peter’s Church where they became active members of the congregation. Dick continued to break down town/gown barriers by hosting an annual community cook out held on the University grounds and he met and listened to neighborhood residents about how Clark could become “part of the community” rather than a community unto itself.

In 1996, Dick and Polly had the President’s place of residence moved from an exclusive area of housing on William Street to a new location on Woodland Street. They felt that the President of Clark should live in Main South. They continued to live there as active community residents until 2000 when Dick retired.

It was under Dick’s guidance and leadership that the Clark University Partnership was established as a means of creating new economic, recreational and educational opportunities for the citizens of Main South. Dick persuaded the trustees of Clark to invest real dollars into community improvement efforts and to provide free tuition at Clark to eligible applicants whose families had lived in the neighborhood for five years. He appointed senior staff to support the effort and then gave it his full support. As a result Clark’s work became a national model for institutional community partnerships and received the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership award in recognition of its accomplishments

However perhaps the one lasting achievement from which Dick drew the most satisfaction was the success of the University Park Campus School. The school which is a collaborative effort between Clark and the Worcester Public Schools was developed under his leadership and designed as an innovative new educational model. The school’s mission was to focus on creating a caring and supportive, yet challenging environment for kids, which would lead to academic success and would be accessible to all neighborhood children through an open lottery. The school has been one of the highest academically performing schools in the State, an amazing statistic when you consider that 54% of the students don’t speak English at home as a first language and 76% qualify for free school meals. Dick always understood that every child deserves an opportunity for academic success.

There is so much more to write about Dick, who with his wonderful wife and partner Polly did so much for this neighborhood and particularly the kids of Main South, but space is limited. It is enough to say that this unassuming, modest man managed to change the way that academic institutions nationally examine their social responsibility to the communities in which they are located. Dick Traina was a man who “walked the walk” and made a difference. May his legacy long continue.