Robert Pura: ‘One man making a difference’

GCC President Robert Pura is Recorder Citizen of the Year

  • Greenfield Community College President Robert L. Pura. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Greenfield Community College President Robert L. Pura is Recorder Citizen of the Year for 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Greenfield Community College President Robert Pura. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Greenfield Community College President Bob Pura in his office. December 15, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—

  • Greenfield Community College President Bob Pura. December 15, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

Recorder Staff
Published: 12/18/2017 11:02:17 PM

The quote, “One man can make a difference. Every man should try,” hangs prominently in the office of Greenfield Community College President Robert L. Pura, who seems to live by the words attributed to John F. Kennedy.

Pura will be honored today as the 35th Recorder Citizen of the year at a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast — a choice that MJ Adams, one of those who nominated him, saw as “a no-brainer” when she saw the original call for nominations.

“The role model he provides at the college speaks so highly of his leadership style and of him as a citizen. He’s so darn approachable, so much a part of the culture here. And he seems to meet everyone where they are.”

Pura, whose Polish-immigrant father never graduated from high school, was the first member of his family to attend college, in Miami, where his family moved from New York when he was 5. (His father and American-born mother, along with his uncle and grandfather, ran a delicatessen-grocery.) Pura is also the first GCC president to have graduated from a community college.

“I point to myself as the community college poster child,” said Pura, 65, who arrived as GCC’s interim president in December 2000 and became its president the following year. “I didn’t have money to go anywhere but Miami-Dade.”

He plans to retire at the end of this school year.

Pura, who also earned degrees at the University of South Florida, what is now Biscayne College and the University of Texas, served as a dean at Massasoit and Berkshire community colleges (in Brockton and Pittsfield, respectively) and oversaw an alcoholism prevention program for the Massachusetts Board of Community Colleges when he first moved to the state in 1978.

But it’s Greenfield where he found his calling.

“I don’t know of a college that works any harder in its commitment to a community,” he says. “And I don’t know of a community that supports its college more than this community. (It’s) second to none that I’m aware of in treating others’ kids who need to learn as their kids. It’s their neighbor’s kids; it’s not ‘other’s’ kids.”

Pura, whose office looks out on a courtyard crisscrossed by students and is decorated simply, makes constant references to how Franklin County “gets it” as a community — from a mentor’s recollection of her father as a professor in Normal, Okla., setting up the public address system and flipping pancakes for graduation, to the locally made 1978 documentary “Root Hog or Die,” which he believes “speaks to this helping out neighbors, the spirit of farmers: you’re going to work hard and do what you’ve got to do, but you’re going to help out your neighbor in ways that are significant.”

Even today, says Pura — who serves on the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Community Foundation of Western Mass., the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and has served on the boards of WFCR, Mass. Humanities and other panels — “You can see all kinds of people engaged in ways that take care of each other: the Franklin County Opioid Task Force, Monte’s March. People are engaged in community life in significant ways. And people work together here in ways that really don’t happen around the state. I think the nation yearns for that, wants it. I think we acknowledge the ‘collaborativeness,’ but we don’t acknowledge as much the way we take care of each other.

“If nothing else, this award speaks to that,” says Pura. “It’s quite moving to me, actually, that this community would honor me with that.”

Selected from more than 40 nominees by a five-member community panel, Pura will receive a $500 cash award from The Recorder that he’s chosen to share with the GCC Foundation and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“Bob has quietly touched many lives in Franklin County, and beyond,” said Recorder Publisher Michael Rifanburg. Although he is a strong leader at GCC, he will be recognized as “Citizen of the Year” for his exceptional service to the community.”

‘Citizen of the decade’

Robbie Cohn, a GCC alumnus and board of trustees chairman, says of Pura, “He’s the most successful man I’ve ever met with no ego. He’s here strictly for the success of the students. He’s been great.”

“I really think he’s not only the citizen of the year; he’s the citizen of the decade,” says another of Pura’s award nominators, lawyer Mark Berson, “because he’s done so much in a consistent way. On a lot of fronts, he’s really made GCC unique in the commonwealth; also he’s effected what I’d call systemic change in the community,” in part because of “his ability to communicate with business people as well as political people to secure money for programs that are important. The opportunity he’s provided to many, many people in this county that never would have been able to happen without his leadership is incredible.”

Berson credits Pura with the ability to see that ideas are implemented, in part by energizing people to get involved, and “he does it with good humor and a degree of humble minimalism, which is rare.”

Jean Simmons, the college’s former nursing program director, says, “He’s such a good egg. He’s so perceptive and intuitive about people. He can spend a few moments in conversation with just about anybody and ‘get’ what their needs are, what their ambition’s all about, and look at it through the lens of what the college can do, but also as a human being. He’s always been like that since he was interviewed for the job.”

She points to Pura’s efforts to improve his putting when he arrived in preparation for his first GCC Foundation Golf Tournament on the heels of predecessor Kay Sloan’s prowess on the green.

“He wanted to make sure he got to talk to everybody who came and played in support of the college, and he spent a few hours practicing,” says Simmons, who also praised Pura’s support for the nursing program and helping it move to the Downtown Center when it needed more space.

Pura’s wife, Marjorie MacDonald-Pura, says “When we go out to eat he always asks the server where they go to school. If it is GCC, he looks for feedback and tells them to drop by. If they are not in school, he gives them his card and tells them to make an appointment to talk.”

MacDonald-Pura, who now teaches kindergarten at Deerfield Elementary School, says that when she met him, she was running Massasoit’s child-care center and was struck by his passion — for music, for education, “for making a difference, that families get what they need, and helping educate families. He’s all in.

“His biggest passion is the community college movement,” she says, adding that when they met, “I was struck by how committed he was to the mission and staying true to the mission.”

Phyllis Nahman, a friend who taught English at GCC for three decades, says “Bob makes things happen; he works behind the scenes and does whatever he has to do to make things happen. He’s just a regular person and doesn’t stick his nose in the air. And he genuinely admires people and thinks that given an opportunity, people who thought they couldn’t walk, can fly. When other presidents didn’t really care about Greenfield, it was a job on their way to another job, for Bob, it’s been more than a job. It’s been a calling to make something happen here, to help people out, to look and see what’s needed around here? What can we do in this place to make that happen?”

While Berson points to GCC’s reconstruction and the GCC Foundation’s ability to garner more than $900,000 in its annual campaign as examples of Pura’s accomplishments, Nahman points to the long-sought creation of a child care center, for which the state has OK’d $9.4 million for construction, as well as collaborations to offer courses at the jail.

For his part, Pura, who’s also overseen collaborations with Elms College and Franklin County Technical School and recently helped establish GCC classes in Amherst as well as Northampton, says $100 million in construction projects at GCC may be most visible. Yet he points to less concrete assets like its Sustainable Agriculture and Green Energy program, and “studios” where students and faculty interact as part of a respectful “culture and environment” that he’s helped build and is proudest of.

The national average for college presidents’ tenure is six years, says Pura, yet “I think it takes seven to 10 years to have an impact, for things to gel and come together, to have trust and build relationships to work with here. It takes time. The same is true in the community. Being part of the community’s an important piece of the job but also an important way of life here. It’s a fit for me.”

Past Citizens of the Year

Other past Recorder citizens were Joan Vander Vliet, Al Dray, Elizabeth Hollingsworth and Philip Gilmore of Deerfield; Pearl Care of Erving; Theodore Martineau of Montague City; Rolland Gifford, Marion Taylor and Marvin Shippee of Shelburne Falls; Ann Hamilton, Amy Clarke, Marjorie Reid, Edward Tombs, Irmarie Jones, Jean Cummings, David McCarthy, Charles Carter and Arline Cohn of Greenfield, Marie Putala, the Rev. Stanley Aksamit, John Carey, Shirley Lovett and Richard Kimball of Turners Falls, Albert Diemand and Theodore Lewis of Wendell, Frank R. “Bud” Foster and William Shores of Bernardston and Marian Holbrook and Raymond Zukowski of Northfield, Allan Adie of Gill, Clifford Fournier, Marty Picard and Geneva Lawson of Orange and Adelia Bardwell of Whately.

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269




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