As President J. Michael Adams unveiled a global mission for Fairleigh Dickinson University last year, he cited FDU founder and first president Peter Sammartino’s ideals and the international traditions established by University members in the early days of the institution. In this issue, alumna and writer Grayce Lucca Pitera, AA’58 (T-H), BA’62 (T-H), recalls her collegiate days and relates the vision for the future with the foundation of the past.

Scenes of Yesteryear

Recalling Earlier Days and the Roots of a Global Vision

By Grayce Lucca Pitera

The inaugural address delivered by FDU President J. Michael Adams revealed distinct similarities between the current agenda and the course set by Peter Sammartino decades ago. As an alumnus, I find it comforting to see the current president driven by a great vision, innovation and desire to implement an ambitious program.

These were the very qualities that attracted me to this school so many years ago. And today, FDU still enjoys the excitement of growing. The great plans of J. Michael Adams challenge everyone to get on board and play an active role in the school’s development.

In September 1956, as FDU was just beginning to make its mark, I left my family’s farm in Hammonton, N.J., and headed for Fairleigh Dickinson to obtain my higher education. I had initially applied to Fairleigh Dickinson College but in the interim, it had achieved university status, an impressive change that personally hailed my acceptance as a more meaningful accomplishment.

I was completely oblivious to the major changes happening at FDU. Like most 17-year-olds, I was more concerned about my own welfare and what adventures lay ahead. With dad at the wheel and mom beside him, I sat in the back seat surrounded by all my worldly possessions, the trunk of the car secured to handle the overload. Of course, my 45-rpm record player, solid gold charm bracelet and a full wardrobe of knee socks were safely tucked away somewhere in the haul.

Grace Pitera during college

The Journey Begins

Excitement and celebration filled the air when I arrived at the Teaneck Campus on that crisp autumn day. Dad couldn’t believe his luck when he found a parking space directly in front of the spacious, newly built women’s dormitory, Bancroft Hall. The students in my group were its very first occupants.

The women had been required to vacate the Linden Dormitory to make room for the men, who, in turn, left the Maples Dormitory for the dental students. It was musical dorms of sorts, but everyone adjusted well. While the majority of the student body commuted, a minute percentage of us lived on campus. I would be one of the lucky few.

The commotion in the dorm office was infectious. Squeals of delight, introductions and happy reunions took place while we waited our turns to be received by our housemother. Mrs. Reilly was a stately, attractive woman with pure white bobbed hair. She was restrained and business-like as she designated my room assignment, A4, which was situated on the first floor directly through the students’ own living room.

Slowly and carefully, mom helped hang my clothes and pack my drawers while dad carted in cardboard boxes brimming with necessities that I could not live without. After saying our goodbyes mom and dad pulled away, and suddenly I realized for the first time in my 17 years, I was now on my own.

Not to worry, though; I wasn’t completely alone. In high school I had gone “steady” (a peculiar cultural phenomenon of the 1950s) with Dan Pitera, BS’58 (T-H), DDS’62 (T-H), for three years and together we had chosen Fairleigh as the one school that could fulfill both our needs. So when all else failed, I always could rely on Dan. He planned to attend the dental school while my ambitions were less lofty. I hoped to receive an AA degree in medical technology, the new “in” career for women.

That first night all the girls walked to Linden Campus [a group of buildings located a few blocks south of the main part of the Teaneck Campus] where we shared the boys’ dining room for dinner, although we ate in different shifts. This walk would be a daily trek, regardless of weather conditions. If we wanted to eat dinner, we needed to walk down to the Linden Campus.

One of my early surprises was the high number of men and women dorming from foreign countries.

One of my early surprises was the high number of men and women dorming from foreign countries. FDU was staunchly reaching across the sea and attracting students from such far away places as Germany, India and Iran. Closer to home, South America was also represented among our international students. Although I had grown up on a street filled with refugees who had survived World War II, I never really knew anyone my own age from another country. This was all very new to me.

Feeling slightly intimidated by my lack of sophistication, I initially stuck close to the girls who also were assigned to the first floor. (Later, of course, as I grew more comfortable, I took great joy and learned invaluable lessons getting to know those from different cultures.) On the first official school day, we donned our sweater sets, wool skirts and blazers and headed for breakfast in an old wooden maroon building near Williams Hall. This was our student union building where the commuting and dorm students came together between classes. There we mostly ate our breakfast or lunch, studied or played cards. The drab army barracks style interior consisted only of tables and chairs and a long cafeteria counter.

In the Classroom

My initial day of classes was an exciting, exhausting and eye-opening experience. The expanding of my environment became evident when Walter Flynn [assistant professor of social sciences] demanded that we read The New York Times from cover to cover each day. My only acquaintance with any newspaper was The Philadelphia Bulletin and that only included the funnies section. Pop quizzes in his Contemporary Society class ensured our compliance.

My trepidation was enforced as I met other faculty such as Charles Schoeppler [assistant professor of chemistry], who held open lab technical testing to determine our individual capabilities; Helen Noble [mathematics instructor], whose intolerance for math aptitude below the genius level was especially unnerving; and Herbert Hauer [assistant professor of psychology], whose soft manner and personal guidance began to assure me that I would get the hang of this university life before long.

I was not prepared, however, for my English class, which introduced me to an educator whose teachings impacted my entire life. He taught us to think during an era when kids were expected to be seen and not heard. Many of us had been conditioned to accept whatever the adult society threw our way. Those circumstances, however, were about to change for me.

Dick Holub taught us to think during an era when kids were expected to be seen and not heard.

As a full classroom awaited the instructor’s appearance, I looked up in time to see a very tall, slender young man stoop just a bit to get through the door. His deeply set blue eyes surveyed the room and with quiet authority, he began the class. This was my first encounter with Dick Holub [assistant professor of English and men’s basketball coach]. His incredible height had contributed to his successful stint as a basketball player with the New York Knicks and his intensity in class underscored his competitive nature. He assumed the inconceivable task of taking on a sleeping culture in an all-out effort to instruct its young to think for themselves.

In addition, the presence of instructors from other countries particularly intrigued but, somehow, intimidated me even further. It seemed incredible to me that someone born and raised in another culture would come to an institute of higher learning in a country foreign to him and in his newly adopted language, teach American students the cutting edge of knowledge. This was not only well done at FDU, it was commonplace.

Peter and Sylvia Sammartino

A Visionary’s Agenda

Peter Sammartino, our hands-on president, had an agenda. First, he decided his school must enter and remain in the limelight at all times. He wished it to serve as a beacon, believing it would attract the exceptionally bright men and women from fine accredited high schools everywhere. He didn’t limit his canvassing to the United States, however. Quietly, Dr. Sammartino began recruiting pupils from foreign countries and offering ground-breaking, financial-aid packages to all of his qualifying students.

It was imperative to Dr. Sammartino to introduce the rest of the world to his resourceful brand of education. He envisioned great steps forward for all his students, being particularly proud of those from foreign shores. The flagpoles on the campus’s semicircular drive flew a flag for each country represented by those men and women. The flags were visual reminders of the school’s emergence, credibility and global reach.

FDU was setting a style as a new and resourceful learning institution ready to rival the older, more traditional schools of the world.

With top-notch instructors and a series of progressive programs, FDU was setting a style as a new and resourceful learning institution ready to rival the older, more traditional schools of the world.

Absorbing its freethinking philosophy made the students’ lifetime goals effortless to pursue. Being intensely groomed to accept responsibility, our delegated commitments were easy to perform. To achieve that objective, Dr. Sammartino held steadfast, assigning remarkable responsibilities and duties to his students.

Each Wednesday at noon, we were compelled to attend College Community Conference (CCC) where the entire student body came together. Cards were issued to all students upon registration and were collected as we filed into the gym. In that way our attendance was recorded. This was a compulsory event, and absenteeism held serious consequences.

Adlai Stevenson visits FDU

It was there that we would have the opportunity to meet heads of state, CEOs and other influential persons. Guests included people like Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois and U.S. presidential candidate; Alexander Kerensky, the former Russian premier; and dignitaries in politics, business and the arts. Dr. Sammartino was exposing us to real-life experiences, rather than simply offering us book learning, which would lead to only dreams of such encounters. He hand-fed us the actual experience, hoping it would become second nature to us. That was a bold and novel approach for any school.

Our president also took full advantage of the school’s proximity to New York City. On designated Wednesdays, Dan would drive his 1956 Ford Fairlane to the United Nations building and with no fanfare or escort in attendance, pick up a dignitary and drive him/her to CCC at FDU. Other students were asked to perform the same service.

The passengers of this humble, but stunning, gesture found it a refreshing change from their otherwise structured lives. No stodgy, stuffy atmosphere would be had here but, instead, just plain unadulterated straightforward courtesy of service. The passengers liked that and resoundingly said so. Often they sat at the edge of the back seat, leaning against the front section, chatting with the student driver. Our students were learning to hobnob with the upper echelon in a setting with which they were completely comfortable.

To round out our impeccable training, FDU also made a conscious effort to hold numerous receptions with all the amenities of high society. Students were to dress and behave accordingly. Such events included the freshman Big Sister Tea, Maroon Key Society Christmas reception, dental school dinner meetings and specific functions for visiting dignitaries.

All these affairs were carried out in the spirit of a corporate undertaking. I had no idea how this training would impact my life, but a few years later, as I am certain he knew it would, Dr. Sammartino’s game plan had a direct affect on me.

Dan and Grayce Pitera

Dan and I were married in 1960. After gaining the AA degree, I continued my studies at FDU and earned a bachelor’s degree in medical technology with a minor in chemistry in 1962. That same year, Dan graduated from the FDU dental school. Upon entering the U.S. Air Force, he was assigned to the clinic at Otis AFB at Falmouth, Mass., during John F. Kennedy’s tenure as president of the United States. This base served as the White House’s arrival and departure venue whenever the Kennedys visited their Hyannisport compound just a few minutes away.

As soon as we settled on base, we were issued two protocol pamphlets: one for the officer and the other for the spouse. We were required to attend conferences with Washington D.C. personnel, foreign country notables and Hollywood entertainers as only one of our numerous duties. It was a glamorous existence, and both Dan and I were confidently up to the task. It was flashback time for us — FDU’s receptions revisited.

At very young ages, Dan and I were frequently in the presence of famous persons without any feelings of inadequacy. It was an experience for which we had indeed been groomed. Dan’s assignment required him to be an integral part of the Hyannisport scene. We still have a wooden rocker that Kennedy’s physician, Janet Travell, personally fitted for Dan.

The crew of the Enola Gay, of World War II chronicles, was also designated to Dan’s patient roster. Whenever any crewmember needed dental work, he was flown to Otis. Dan would drive out to the runway, meet him and take personal charge of his visit. Those drives to New York City for CCC speakers seemed strangely connected to Dan’s new assignment.

A World Without Boundaries

Preparing its men and women to walk in harmony with world personalities was an important inclusion of FDU’s program.

Preparing its men and women to walk in harmony with world personalities was an important inclusion of FDU’s program. Having our University recognized as a world presence sounded intimidating to its young students in those days. Many of us had not traveled outside our tri-state area; television was a fledgling technology; slide rules were in use; Emily Post had clout; and the adults commanded and received high doses of respect. So you can imagine how staggering it sounded to us when we were encouraged to travel to new lands, explore different cultures and change the world around us.

Not to Dr. Sammartino, however. He possessed a natural inclination toward a different perspective. He met challenges head on, stretched his own limits in the interest of education and accumulated great personal accomplishments. He expected no less of his students or the University.

He set a course and dispersed his young charges on diverse assignments to set his strategy into motion. We, as was the custom in those days, followed. Because of this man, short in stature and tall on vision, we students accepted our rites of passage and took our places in corporations, entertainment endeavors, medical fields, private businesses or whatever direction our interests led us. We were conditioned to dive in and succeed; and if that meant working with or traveling to another country, it was taken for granted.

Our world held no bounds, an incredible mindset for the times. The Fairleigh Dickinson graduates of the 1950s and very early 1960s were unabashedly riddled with that Sammartino-styled confidence.

With one foot in our adolescent way of life and the other on the brink of an awakening horizon, we marched on in the spirit of our mighty University president. I am sure that today he would sit back in his office in that old administration building [Lyans Hall] on “the hill” by the river and nod his head in approval at the global path FDU’s new leader has taken. I have a feeling Dr. Sammartino would swell with pride as he realized that his inspirations still live in the hopes and dreams of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s men and women.

Grace Lucca Pitera today

Grayce Lucca Pitera, AA’58 (T-H), BS’62 (T-H), is a weekly columnist for the Hammonton Gazette in her hometown of Hammonton, N.J. She also owns and operates The Cornucopian, a shop located in a 12-room circa 1840 Victorian house, which specializes in home accessories, refinished furniture, upscale gifts and its own European style chocolates.

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