Parting Thoughts: Dr. Gary L. Wirt
Goldey-Beacom College President Gary L. Wirt will retire effective June 30, turning over the reins of the university to Colleen Perry Keith, the first female president in the school’s 133-year history.
Dr. Wirt became Goldey-Beacom’s 13th president in 2015 and will retire after 46 years at the college. He joined the college as an adjunct faculty member in 1973, later earning the rank of professor. In 1988, he joined the college full-time as Dean of Students, becoming Vice President for Student Affairs a year later. From 1997 to his selection as president, Wirt served as vice president for external affairs. Before joining Goldey-Beacom full time, Dr. Wirt worked in mental health, and served as the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Delaware.
Dr. Wirt took some time before retirement to reflect on his career.
At what point in your life did you realize you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
I was certain I was bound for a career in mental health, not higher education. I was 16 and had just begun my first summer job — at Delaware Psychiatric Center. I saw how little it took to treat “patients” as “people” — and how much they valued my interest in them, in their past, in their experiences. (Public institutions are too often good at batch processing, but not always strong with real caring or sensitivity.) At 16, I was making a difference in someone’s life and perhaps for the first time, I fully realized the power of sincere meaningful interaction between people.
What accomplishment are you most proud of during your career at Goldey-Beacom?
I am most proud of the smooth transition of the college from a “business school” to an expanded set of offerings including English, Criminal Justice, and Psychology. This was a significant shift in the philosophy of our education, our mission, the processes that drive the offerings, and the faculty we employ.
The change was over a year in the making and involved a complete reworking of our print and electronic materials, recertification by our accreditors, and frankly, a new way of thinking. We anticipated some “push-back” from those who had only known GBC as a business college, but through some careful work and cultivation, the change was welcomed and met with enthusiasm. I am also immensely proud of the College’s move to a better credentialed faculty. All full-time faculty now have the highest degree in their field. I know of no other school in the region that has achieved this.
What’s the greatest compliment you ever received?
A troubled student once said to me “You walked around in my head and turned on the lights, one-by-one, until I could finally see what I was doing to myself.”
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
No one ever sees people as they truly are — but rather we see them somewhat distorted by our own biases, our own experiences, and our personal expectations. Author Tennessee Williams describes it as the cloudy glass through which we must see each other.
If you could have just one meal from the road again, where would you be?
I would be at Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen on Charter Street in New Orleans dining on blackened beef tenders with debris sauce.
When you hear the word “successful, who (or what) do you think of?
The most successful people I have known excelled at setting goals, communicating them to others, and monitoring progress without micro-management. I have tried to follow that formula in my career.
What’s your favorite quote?
Bill Clinton once said, “Life’s greatest wounds are self-inflicted.” No truer words were ever spoken.
What advice would you give your 20-25-30-year-old self?
Where were you at that time? Be patient, Gary, be patient. Impatience, too much eagerness, and a drive to get things done now are counterproductive.
When you feel overwhelmed, distracted, or lose focus, what do you do? I’ve learned over my career to back off, remove myself from the situation, shift tasks, and come back later. Personally, once I’ve lost focus, I need to focus elsewhere for a bit. That will always give me a new perspective, clearer thinking, and a more creative approach. For me, even a very short time away from the situation can change my thinking or give me new commitment. Few sensible decisions are ever made when distracted, upset, or angry. Distance always brings a new perspective and a new approach for me.
What’s the question you wish more people would ask themselves?
Will this really matter as much to me in a year? I have learned to ask myself this often and, of course, that moment’s “crisis” is usually tomorrow morning’s chuckle.
If you could walk in someone’s shoes (living or dead) for 24 hours, who would it be?
Physicist Stephen Hawking has long been a hero — an inspiration — for me. His ability to see so far beyond the self, to escape the bonds of human frailty, to ponder the possible implications of the cosmos fascinate me. I would indeed welcome the ability to see so far beyond our earthly limitations through his eyes, and with his intellect.
What’s next for you?
Time on the road, traveling to places my schedule never allowed, more quiet time at my “other home” in Rehoboth, and a respectable period of absolutely no major decision-making.