Finnegan's Brushstrokes Are Painting Longwood's Canvas

Published 5:50 pm Thursday, December 9, 2010

FARMVILLE – During his first months as president of Longwood University, Patrick Finnegan hasn't painted the town red.

Not yet. A few brushstrokes, perhaps, of Lancer blue some day.

But what Finnegan hasn't done to the town, students have done to the retired Brigadier General.

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Finnegan's been painted red.

With just a splash or two of green.

And he loves it.

“I took part-I was going to say inadvertently but that's not exactly true. I took part in the 'color wars,' which is the throwing of paint between the Red Class and the Green Class,” the affable Finnegan told community leaders during a breakfast speech this fall.

Longwood's new leader had been invited by students to come and open the annual combat of color. A few insights. A verbal ribbon-cutting.

“I made a couple of remarks there, and I really wasn't intending to do much more than that,” Finnegan said, sounding more like a college student explaining to the dean how he was caught throwing paint at people.

“I was standing there on the sidelines,” the father of two continued, padding his alibi, “watching the students throw red and green paint at each other, when one of the students, covered with quite a bit of paint, came over and sort of challenged me.”

Peer pressure.

A classic case.

As president, Finnegan could have offered any number of excuses. All of them legitimate.

But Finnegan is not one for backing down from challenges-even a sort of challenge-whether it involves throwing paint at one another or not.

“I couldn't resist,” the man with four grandchildren said.

What winner of the Army's Distinguished Service Medal could?

Besides, a study of the photographic evidence reveals he came to the “color wars” wearing a T-shirt and shorts rather than a suit and tie.

Bronze Star awardees come prepared for anything. They have done their reconnaissance and know the lay of the land.

Nor was his involvement passive.

The message on his T-shirt read: I Wear Purple For My Daughter. But he would soon be wearing red and green for Longwood's student body.

Students could not resist their university president as a willing target, or teammate, in the school spirit-building fun.

“It took me about 45 minutes to shower and get the paint out of my hair,” Finnegan said, to the delighted laughter of his audience. “And I think there's still some there.”

A dyed-in-the-wool Lancer.

“I will tell you that General Finnegan is an absolute hit with the students,” Longwood's Vice President for Student Affairs, Tim Pierson, told the Herald. “His genuine interest and engagement in so many of the activities on campus has shown that he is a true Lancer.

“It is very apparent that he enjoys interacting with students,” Pierson continued, “whether it is meeting casually with individuals in the dining hall or discussing Longwood with groups of students as he did each class, or attending a basketball game and cheering with the Lancer Lunatics.”

A true Lancer “Lunatic” with an appreciation for what Longwood and Farmville mean to each other.

“There is no doubt that we are inextricably linked. Longwood wouldn't be Longwood without Farmville,” Finnegan said, “and I don't think Farmville would be Farmville without Longwood.”

On Sunday he was co-grand marshal, with his wife, Joan, of the Farmville Jaycees Christmas Parade, along with Hampden-Sydney College President, Dr. Christopher Howard, with his wife, Barbara-two men leading institutions of higher learning that are vital components of the community.

Finnegan told the nearly 100 community leaders this fall, “I've come to understand…how closely integrated the town and the campus are and how important it is to make that relationship the best it can be. Longwood was founded by seven businessmen in Farmville and the interconnection between the town and the campus is vital.”

Noting the massively positive economic impact on the community from spending by the university, its employees, students and visitors, Finnegan said Longwood is “trying to think of new ways to partner with the Farmville business community.”

One new avenue for local businesses is Lancer Cash, which is like a debit card.

“We're offering this convenient way for students to purchase food and merchandise, not beer,” said Finnegan. “Well, they're tricky. They find ways around it. You're not supposed to purchase alcohol with your Lancer Card but one trick that I think they learned from students at other universities is you don't buy the beer or alcohol directly. You go buy a gift card and then you use the gift card to buy beer or alcohol,” he said, generating more laughter and showing a sense of humor that bubbles not too far beneath his surface.

“The card,” he then said seriously, “is a good way to attract students to your businesses.”

And he suggested they do so.

Co-chair of the downtown Farmville revitalization committee, Dr. Charles Ross, believes Finnegan will be “a wonderful asset” to that organization's “mission to bring the town and university into a stronger relationship.”

As well as an obvious asset to the university.

Dr. Ross, who is Dean of the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences at Longwood, describes President Finnegan as “an extremely smart guy with integrity and a sense of humor. In short, he is the right person at the right time for Longwood.”

Finnegan, Ross told the Herald on Monday, “is living up to and exceeding our extremely high expectations for him. He seems to be at every Longwood event and students and faculty already show great affection toward him. I know that he has been on the road extensively meeting key legislators and friends of Longwood and I have heard that he is making a great impression there as well.”

His touch with faculty and staff is as sure as it is with students.

“He has also made an effort to attend individual staff and department meetings around campus,” Pierson noted. “In these meeting he listens to what faculty and staff have to say about our campus, while encouraging us to work together. Or, as he says, 'play nice with one another' in order for Longwood to succeed.”

As Finnegan addressed Farmville community leaders at the breakfast meeting, he was looking forward that night to being a judge for an Iron Chef competition on campus.

There weren't many of those in the Army.

The transition from civilian life after 39 years in the Army has not been difficult, coming to Longwood and Farmville from West Point.

But the subject is one that people do ask him to address.

“And actually it's been pretty smooth, overall. The people here are great and that's what I liked about the Army also,” he said.

But there are sartorial decisions that he never faced in the Army.

“The hardest part, the biggest quandary, is every night I have to ask myself-what are you wearing tomorrow?” he said.

Cue laughter.

And his wife for wardrobe advice and reconnaissance.

“It's a good thing that Joan is around to tell me what tie goes with what shirt,” Finnegan said of clothing choices the daily Army uniform never posed.

Or what T-shirt goes with what pair of shorts.

The adjustment to Farmville, on the other hand, has been no challenge at all.

Farmville fits Finnegan just fine.

Fits him like the paint on his face, arms, legs, head…

“A lot of people have asked us about Farmville, what we think about it…People say to us, 'How do you like Farmville? It's a small town,'” he related.

Finnegan understands the question, but after driving through heavy traffic around Washington, D.C., for example, “you're happy to come to a place like Farmville,” he said.

But that's not all.

“Another thing is we lived at West Point and the town outside West Point…is a place called Highland Falls.”

Don't think 'Niagara.'

Nobody's going over Highland Falls in a barrel.

Through Highland Falls in a barrel, yes, provided that barrel's in a truck.

“You can look and look,” Finnegan said of Highland Falls, “and you won't find any falls. It also has not even one stop light. So we feel like we've come to the big city.”

And the Finnegans very much appreciate coming to Farmville and Longwood.

“Everything that we've seen here and experienced has reinforced the initial impressions that I had going through the interview process,” he said of the dedication among students, faculty and staff and the relationship between Farmville and Longwood. “I have found what I would characterize as good relationships between the town and the campus and that is not a surprise. That is what I expected.”

What he did not expect was to be laid up for a month with pneumonia in his second month on campus.

“My first several weeks in office were not really what I expected or hoped for and I spent most of August recuperating,” he said, “but now I'm back, I'm back full-time, I'm learning exactly how full the life of a president needs to be.”

Just as he learned his way around a campus dotted with construction projects and orange fence barriers around those sites as he sought out students, faculty and staff to meet and speak with the them.

“Usually, it works out pretty well but a couple of weeks ago I was trying to head for Bedford Hall,” Finnegan noted. Of course there was construction. “And I couldn't get there. Everywhere I went I ran into a construction fence.”

No problem, he thought, because, yes, there is Dr. Ken Perkins, who knows the campus like the back of his paint-free hand.

The veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm noted that Perkins “has been here almost 30 years and I said 'Ken, how do I get to Bedford Hall? How can I get there?' He said, 'Follow me.' And we went around the corner, he took me, and we ran right into a construction fence.”

Laughter again.

But utter seriousness, too.

The West Point graduate unveiled his intention to have Longwood undertake its very first master plan for academics, just as it routinely creates master plans for campus and facilities development.

This will be a master plan for what happens on the campus inside those facilities.

“We have not had, to my knowledge, any kind of strategic plan or master plan for academics-where we're going in education. That's one of the things we're going to get started on,” he announced. “It's going to be a process. It's going to take us a little while to get there…to figure out where we should go.

“We're very proud of our heritage. We were a teachers college and we still produce great teachers for the commonwealth and the area but we can't stand still,” he stressed. “We have to look at what's important for the future.”

Longwood, Finnegan told them, must fight for resources and compete against other institutions of higher learning for students “so we have figure out what we are going to be as an institution in the next decade. If we stay doing what we're doing now we're going to fall behind.

“You have to change and we have to change with the times,” said the former Dean of West Point's Academic Board, though underscoring Longwood's current academic strength. “And we have a good academic program in place now. We have more than a hundred majors, minors and concentrations.”

A sound foundation upon which to plan and build Longwood's tomorrows.

“The planning's going to be inclusive from around the campus,” he promised, “not just the academic side but others as well, because, although this is an academic master plan, we're talking about the future of the university.”

Enrollment at Longwood has “been flat,” Finnegan said, increasing at less than one percent a year.

Flat enrollment is not a goal. Nor is getting too large, becoming something other than Longwood, with its family atmosphere, small class size and close relationships between faculty and students.

Where students “are names, not numbers,” he said.

“We don't see large growth,” Finnegan said. “We want to grow somewhat, not very fast. We want to keep Longwood what it is.

“Eight different decades of alumni all say the same thing” about why they love Longwood, he continued. “You are a face and a name, not a number.

“We're not going to grow as Madison College” did, exploding into James Madison University, he stressed.

Explosions bring craters and shrapnel, casualties-even explosions of other kinds that have nothing to do with military battlefields.

Longwood is not preparing to wound itself, or anyone else, as it plans and grows its best future, a future that generations of alumni will recognize as being true to the school they love.

A love rapidly embracing a Brigadier General who retired from the Army and left West Point to come to the Town of Farmville and Longwood University.

And a love returned in kind.

Paint battles, Iron Chef competitions, lobbying state legislators and friends of Longwood and all of the myriad etceteras that pull in so many directions for a college president?

The miles and miles and hours and hours?

Three words suffice, for Finnegan, to sum it up.

“It's all good,” he said with a smile.

Red or green.

Pick any color of paint you like.