Active, healthy, and still loving his work at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Center for Ethics in Public Life, the decision to retire did not come easily to Tom Moran. “I love my work, and don’t feel terribly old,” he recently told Strictly Business in a personal interview, “My retirement was prompted by my desire to spend more time with my grandchildren.”
When we sat down, Moran was less than six months into his new life as a retiree and still getting used to the idea. “I haven’t had a real retirement mentality yet,” he explained, “So far, it has felt more like I went on vacation and haven’t come back yet.” Moran officially retired in August 2016 with 44 years of service to SUNY Plattsburgh, where his career began as an undergraduate student. During his time as an active student there, he met some of his most influential mentors, and the woman who would become his wife, Kathy. He served in the Peace Corps after graduation, and went on to assume leadership roles with several nonprofit organizations before returning to his alma mater in 1972. In his 44 years there, he served the college in many roles, including founding director of the Institute for Ethics in Public Life.
Hometown: Oyster Bay, NY (Long Island)
Family: Wife Kathy, two grown daughters, Taryn and Laura, and three grandchildren
Current Occupation: Retired administrator at SUNY Plattsburgh, grandfather
Education: Ph.D. in educational administration and policy analysis (SUNY Albany); B.A. in history (SUNY Plattsburgh)
Community Involvement: A vast spectrum of service to human services agencies, including chair of the Clinton County Community Services Board and BHSN; service in the Peace Corps
SB: How did serving in the Peace Corps impact your career?
TM: The view of service and volunteerism that is reflected in doing something like that has turned into a lifelong determination. I believe that human services are critical to life in the community, particularly for certain groups of people who are often overlooked. Early in my career I realized that one of the ways that I could be most effective as a volunteer was to give my time to the boards of nonprofit human service organizations. With my background in policy analysis and administration, I could bring a level of expertise that they could not afford to hire as consultants. I saw this as a contribution that would be more specific than simply showing up and volunteering for something. I am not sure if there has ever been a period when I was not actively serving on a human services board.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
TM: I learned about the conjunction of chance, and being well-prepared for the moment that may come that you can’t foresee. I have never been ambitious about my career in a calculating sense. While my resume may look like it had clear themes as I rose in administrative ranks at the college, in fact it had no particular plan. I could not have imagined that it would turn out like it did.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
TM: It was probably Edward Redcay. I was a student of his near the end of his career. He was an extraordinary man who arrived in Plattsburgh by chance and was hired as an instructor at the college.
He fell in love with the place, but even more so with the idea that people training to be teachers could get as good an education as he did at Dartmouth. He played every role on campus from coach of the basketball team, to teacher, to interim president. He was instrumental in creating the modern State University of New York, and transforming this place from a teacher’s college to a liberal arts college. He was profoundly committed to building what we see here today. He taught me the importance of commitment and car- ing. He showed me the value of commitment to a worthy purpose in an organization, and of caring about it and the people in it. The arc of his life was one I admired and one that I would have chosen for my own if I could have ever imagined that I could have it unfold in such a fortunate way. His is an incredible story, and it should be told.
SB: What qualities do you believe are necessary for success?
TM: Two things: the first is a belief that what you are doing is worthy of commitment, and the second is that you use your talents in a way that contributes to those worthy purposes and that you develop your talents in a way that expresses gratitude for them. Using your talents in life is a way of showing that you are fortunate to have them. I think that using your talents is an obligation for having been given them; sort of like what you owe to life. As the writer Saul Bellow said, “We owe a life to this existence.”
SB: “Civic responsibility” has been a common thread throughout your career. What does that term mean to you?
TM: It means that we have a responsibility for our collective well-being. Human history is replete with a litany of broken worlds. We are responsible for creating the world we want, and for making our world a place where we, and those we care about, can flourish. A decent society is a collective achievement, not an accident. In one of my annual speeches to students, I always ended with the same line: ‘It is important for you to know that when it is your turn to shoulder the institutions of this society and your world, that your education will have given you the preparation, and the will, to be able to do so.’ That is the theme of much of what we do here at the college. We cultivate self-development, we transmit a cultural heritage, we sharpen critical thinking capabilities, and we prepare citizens for life in a democracy. We cannot evade our responsibility.
SB: What can readers of Strictly Business do to exercise their own civic responsibility?
TM: There are lots of ways. Being informed in a critical way, voting, even volunteering. What we have in our lives is the obligation to weave the fabric of a decent society. Some of this can be as simple as the way we greet and respect each other in the world, or in the way we reach out and help those who might need us. Another way is to sup- port the development of any kind of institute—schools, arts, human services—all of the ways in which we make our community better.
SB: Tell us about your approach to management and leadership?
TM: The two most important qualities in leadership are trustworthiness and vision. If people don’t believe that you are trustworthy, it breeds cynicism in the organization. If you don’t share your vision, people have no sense of purpose, and why it matters to be doing the work they are doing in the organization. People who have no sense of a larger motivation are left to fall back on simple, personal things to motivate them, like a paycheck. Leaders have to take people beyond that.
SB: If you could start your professional career over again, what would you do differently?
TM: I think I was always very good at privately supporting people who have achieved something—send them a note or an email. If I could go back and do it over I would do more public celebration of others’ achievements.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
TM: In terms of achievements, I am proud of having been the provost for a decade, and helping to hold the college together, particularly during some difficult budget times. I am proud of establishing the Institute for Ethics in Public Life as an expression of the obligation for institutions of higher education to cultivate civic responsibility on the part of their students. In terms of the real essence of this question, I am proud that I served a place that I believed was worthy—for a long time, in a lot of roles—and that I tried to do it well.
SB: What is something no one would guess about you?
TM: I seem to be someone who is very social and enjoys people, but what is not obvious about me is that I like to be alone—a lot. I spend hours reading, and hours walking along the lake. Wherever I am I find a pretty spot to walk. I can do that for more hours than people would expect from someone who seems so high energy and busy.
SB: What inspires you?
TM: Natural beauty is a profound source of inspiration for me. I love starlit skies, moonlight, clouds, the lake, and the view of the mountains. I have spent a lot of time enjoying it here. I live next to the lake; I can see a magnificent lake valley right across the street. My friends inspire me. I have had the good fortune of having some wonderful friendships in my life with extraordinary people. I have often said of my life, that I strive to be worthy of my friends. Even my children inspire me. I watch them as young women, and realize how much I can learn from them. They do the kinds of things that are worthy of emulating.
SB: What do you do in your free time?
TM: I am an avid reader. I often read until two in the morning. I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren. Family was always important to me and I spend a lot of time with family. I used to be more active and loved to sail on the lake, hike in the fall, and cross-country ski in the winter.
SB: How would you like to be remembered?
TM: Two years ago, a woman came up to me in the grocery store, explaining that she was a student at SUNY Plattsburgh the same time as I was, and she had followed my career throughout the years. We talked for a few minutes and she said, ‘You always looked like you knew where you were going, but you were friendly. You embodied for me, the spirit of the college. You seem purposeful and warm-hearted, and that’s the way I think of the college.’ I don’t know if it is true, but it would be a nice way to be remembered. I thought that was a very eloquent way to express it. I did not get her name, but I have often wished that I could track her down and thank her for that conversation.