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Jack Flavin is a go-getter, a company starter, who lit out for the territories well, Iowa soon after graduating from the School of Management in 1959. He spent two decades in Dubuque with A.Y. McDonald Manufacturing, leaving as a vice president in the early '80s. He's established a baseball card company which he later sold, and an investment firm still managed by his nephew Patrick. Since 1983 he's been in Texas with his own Triangle Supply Company, a wholesaler of plumbing and heating supplies.
Flavin had been described to us as "cherubic," a reference, we expect, to his fluffy white hair, rosy cheeks, and winning, dimpled grin. Rosy, white-haired, and winning as we found him, what struck us most in meeting the Dallas entrepreneur and head of Campaign UMass is his focus his way of training his bright brown eyes on whomever he's speaking or listening to, his soft-spoken clarity in expressing what the people's university had done for him and his family.
Flavin and his brother, the late Joe Flavin '53 another go-getter, chairman of Singer Corporation when he died in 1987 were raised in modest circumstances. Third generation Irish-Americans from Greenfield, they were the sons of a salesman who managed a territory for Firestone. Their mother died when Jack was thirteen, and he went to live with his aunts Mildred and Margaret in the maternal family home. The boys were the first in the family to go to college. There was "a cultural desire for education," he says "our family told us this is what they expected" but what made it feasible was the G.I. Bill and UMass.
In late September, in a brief chat following a meeting on campus of the Campaign Cabinet, Flavin remarked on how impressed he'd been with the installation of President William Bulger in Boston the week before: the elegant music, dress, and demeanor, the image of excellence.
"It's not too many years now that graduates of this campus have had enough pride in it," he said. "And we need that: we need to support and feel proud of what goes on here." Flavin identifies the painful paradox familiar to everyone who knows and loves UMass: that a top-flight university in one of the most education-proud states in the nation is undervalued at home largely because of the region's saturation with elite private schools.
"I have no doubt that those schools provide a fine education, and that many of our students could go there and succeed there if they wanted to," Flavin said. "But that's not what we're here for. We're here for people like me and my brother, who had the desire but didn't have the background or the money. We're here to offer that fine education to everyone." Flavin calls his years in the Midwest and Texas "a real eye-opener" in terms of how much private support is necessary and possible in building and maintaining a great public school.
"Education is the great equalizer," says Flavin, who set the pace for the university's first campaign by endowing the Flavin Chair for Entrepreneurship in honor of his brother and father. "The education we got here was a platform that determined what our families could do," he says. "That's what UMass is, and we forget that, we've lost track of what we are. Of what we are."
So what's an endowment, anyway?
In heritage terms, here at the land-grant, let's call it the seed-corn: a resource we don't eat, but plant. Endowment funds are those we don't spend, but invest, using the income to fund scholarships, professorships, building improvements, or a host of other desirable things.
The Flavin Chair for Entrepreneurship is an endowment. So is part of the $6 million gift that established the Isenberg School of Management. Endowments that result in named professorships and buildings tend to be big gifts; little gifts are needed too. Next time: So What About Us Little Donors?
At nine o'clock on a weekday morning, Gene and Ronnie Isenberg are sitting still for an interview in the large, elegant living room of their Park Avenue apartment. Gene is eating an overstuffed omelet and drinking the coffee he's just fetched from a nearby Starbucks. The chairman and CEO of Nabors Industries (the world's largest oil drilling company) and donor, with Ronnie, of the largest gift ever received by UMass ($6 million to expand the School of Management building and endow a SOM chair) seldom sits still for long. His work requires frequent travel to Houston, where Nabors is headquartered, as well as to Yemen, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia: wherever the company is drilling. Isenberg is also pleased to note the fashion in business entertaining for taking clients golfing, shooting, and fishing in interesting places; he has cast lines in Russia, Alaska, and, recently, Labrador. Add to these work-related travels their homes in New York, Martha's Vineyard, and Palm Beach, and you can see why both Isenbergs move around quite a bit.
They will also sit still, though, for opera. Their shared passion for the artform began when they were a young couple new to New York. Ronnie says a close friend advised them to listen to records and study librettos in order to appreciate what for many is an acquired taste. Acquire it they did; Ronnie is now a board member of the Palm Beach Opera; the week we visited in New York, they had tickets for Turandot at the Met; in a month, says Gene, they might see "eight, nine operas as many as we can."
Isenberg says he loves everything about opera: the music, the acting, the staging, the stories. It's tempting for a writer to see his own story in operatic terms, though in telling it, Isenberg scrupulously avoids self-dramatization, making it sound as if anyone could end up a millionaire. Born of immigrant parents, a month into the Depression, in Chelsea also Ronnie's home town Isenberg was the first in his family to go to college; "the first in my family to do a lot of things," he adds. He earned a bachelor's at UMass, a master's from Princeton. He'd thought he'd become a professor, but instead went to work for Exxon; business seemed a "surer bet," he says.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates Isenberg's adaptability than his reaction to being posted to Bangkok by Exxon in the early sixties: he experienced not a twitch of culture shock, he says. "I was born for it; it took me about ten seconds to adjust." As for Ronnie, she set about assembling an exquisite collection of art and antiques, including ancient Buddhas, cast-iron Palace dogs, and blue-and-white porcelain, pieces of which adorn their New York apartment today.
Isenberg quickly moved up the ladder at Exxon, but in the late sixties, shifting gears again, he left to "do something entrepreneurial": start, and sell eleven years later, a building-materials company. Then, at an age when many people start preparing to retire, he plunged into the challenge of turning around an ailing oil company. "The timing was good," he says. In any case, Nabors went from losses of $10 million a year in 1986 to sales of $1.25 billion in 1997.
Having been, in his words, "pretty fortunate in my business endeavors," Isenberg has chosen to share that good fortune. In 1994, he and Ronnie established the Eugene M. Isenberg Awards for students interested in integrating management with science, mathematics, or engineering. Last June, they made their landmark $6 million gift to Campaign UMass.
They chose UMass for this gift over more elite institutions, says Isenberg, because he felt it would be "more effective" in helping students of backgrounds like his own. And, adds this consummate businessman, who's been "very impressed" by Chancellor Scott and Deans O'Brien, Goldstein, and Slakey, UMass has "good salesmen."