Once known as “Gem City” for its sparkling lake, Erie, Pennsylvania has a rich history – one that Gannon University has long been a part of as Erie’s urban university. So, it’s no surprise that Gannon has a few hidden gems of its own. But, what exactly is considered a hidden gem at Gannon University?
Gannon gems are nostalgic and precious. They are the little-known places on campus you frequent often, or the nooks you pass by that are adorned with detail and symbols of the University’s history. They can also be not-so-hidden spaces that we associate with our fondest memories. And when you are traveling the scenic paths to these destinations, you meet the people who make Gannon University the treasured home it is.
Uncover just some of the many special people, places and landmarks that exemplify the spirit of Gannon University and are its hidden gems.
“One of the most important things I enjoy in life is jumping out of airplanes,” said Catherine Datte, director of Gannon’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
“After I got over the initial fear, I started to enjoy myself,” said Datte. So much so, that she is now a licensed sky diver and has sky dived over one thousand times.
Datte found her way to this new lifestyle through her involvement and fundraising for Strings for a Cure. Her passion and personal connection for this cause ignited more members of the Gannon Family to brave the jump and support the cause as well.
“This year, my fundraiser is still going on and I even was able to get three of our students to go,” she said. “I am hoping to have a few more people go. I enjoy spreading not only the support for breast cancer, but also the most exciting thing I think people could do, which is jumping out of plane.”
By day, Karen McKenna works in Gannon’s Office of Sponsored Programs and Research. After work, she’s an artist in one of the most exacting and demanding disciplines: pen and ink. McKenna’s preferred medium is strictly old school, “with a dip pen and a metal nib,” she said.
“I’ve always been fascinated with detail, with things people don’t always see,” McKenna said. A case in point is her series of drawings called Look Up Erie. “It’s all different things in the downtown area, that if you don’t make a conscious effort to notice them, you miss all this beauty.”
One of the most fruitful areas for her inquiry was right outside the door of McKenna’s former office in Old Main. Surrounded by the intricate craftsmanship and architectural details of the grans old mansion, she set about to capture them for a series of notecards. “Things you find in pillars, the carved marble of a fireplace and the doorknobs! These were artists.”
And so is Karen McKenna.
It might not have been “Dancing with the Stars,” but Debra Stroiney, Ph.D., assistant professor of sport and exercise science, did dance with Tony Dovolani who won season 15 of the popular program with Melissa Rycroft.
“I was a teacher and manager at a Fred Astaire Dance Academy studio when I was getting my masters degree in sport and exercise psychology, and wanted a job where I could be active,” Stroiney said. The studio advertised for instructors, no experience necessary, and Stroiney, who had been dancing since the age of six, got the job.
“Fred Astaire put on competitions three times a year,” she said. “Tony would come and coach us because he worked for Fred Astaire.”
Yet competitions weren’t Stroiney’s favorite part of working at Fred Astaire. “On TV it looks so glamourous and fun, but it’s stressful. Still, I loved having a goal. It’s like any other exercise program, like running a marathon. You train for it, just like here, where we do our research and our professional development so we can make our classes better.”
The saying “Have a blessed day!” has become a byword on Gannon’s Erie campus, an expression of love and well-wishes almost as buoyant as its creator, who has woven herself into the bright fabric of campus life.
“I think of myself as a campus big sister to students from all over the country,” said Metz Culinary Services mainstay Chante Woodard. “They can always come to me for a hug, a prayer or just normal conversation.”
As for the expression that has become her trademark, Woodard says, “The least thing you can do is to put a smile on people’s faces. and I always get smiles back. Nobody tells me to say it. I just follow my heart.”
Steve Ropski, Ph.D. may be a scientist with a special concentration on the area’s bat population, but the professor of biology doesn’t give much credence to the right-brain/left-brain distinction. In Ropski, the creative and the scientific coexist quite comfortably. They also have a lot of fun together.
“I’m a biologist who does theater,” Ropski says with the matter-of-factness of his scientific self. “I act.” He even does musicals, though he’s quick to admit that “the singing and dancing might be better described as mouthing words and moving on stage.”
He’s a veteran of more than a dozen shows at the Erie Playhouse, and has appeared onstage for other Erie companies, including a role in “The Glorious Ones,” for one of the Schuster Theatre’s annual Alex Clemente fundraisers. “If you’re a teacher, you can probably act,” he said. “I think a good teacher needs the same skills as a standup comedian.”
Desi Herter, associate director of graduate enrollment at Gannon University’s Ruskin Campus held a unique role in the University’s expansion into the Sunshine State. As the first Gannon University employee to transfer from the Erie campus to Ruskin, Herter became the vessel for the transmission of a culture– a role she takes seriously.
“When I got the call about the Florida campus, I wondered if it was really happening, I thought, wow, someone actually thought about me when they thought about that move,” she said. But it wasn’t a matter of Desi taking the Gannon spirit and giving it southern flair. “I wanted to ‘Ruskinize’ the Gannon spirit, but I also wanted to ‘Gannonize’ Ruskin. Knowing what we do so well in Erie, service, recruiting students who share values, and faculty, too, we made sure we did what we could.”
Mary Carol (MC) Gensheimer
Mary Carol Gensheimer, Assistant Professor of Communication and the Arts is a “maker of things” she says. “I can make something out of just about anything, and lots of times making things is what keeps me going,” she said. “Part of what a maker does is to find objects and make them work for a problem that I’m trying to solve.”
She’s created projects and art using a variety of skills from welding to woodworking, and has even built a scale model of the White House made of sugar cubes. “I’m really into making trophies for things right now, collecting things that will go together to make an object of gratitude or admiration for different things in my life,” she said.
Gensheimer finds getting people to think dimensionally is an important element of creating artists. “If I can inspire students to do that kind of stuff, it will have been a good day for me.”
There might not be a more precious gem on Gannon University’s Erie campus than Corporal John Coleman of Campus Police and Safety. During his 16 years at Gannon and among the countless encounters he has had with members of the Gannon Family, one stands out.
“It was in December of 2012 when I was walking down the aisle at my graduation ceremony. I was getting ready to get the diploma from Dr. Taylor and I heard this applause. Then the applause got louder, and it was for me! I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the love, but I felt like I had found my home and completed my journey.”
A deserving moment for the man who always has a kind word and a smile to welcome everyone he sees on campus.
Ray Luniewski has been Gannon’s Campus Services electrician at the University for 23 years, one of the countless people who keep the Erie campus going. Like many members of the Gannon Family, Luniewski is involved in the community, too.
For decades, Luniewski has organized and managed some of Erie’s largest public events, like the parade for Erie’s bicentennial celebrations in 1995 for example. He’s been the chairman of two of the region’s largest and best-attended ethnic festivals, the German Festival and the Zabawa Polish festival.
But his longest and perhaps most cherished project is the Lake Erie Fanfare drum corps show and competition that makes an annual stop in Erie.
Luniewski has been the event’s co-chairman since the Fanfare first marched onto the Erie scene in 1983. It’s a massive undertaking annually bringing about 1,750 performers and support personnel in a fleet of buses to stay at locations from Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania to Westfield, New York. “It’s the greatest show on wheels,” Luniewski said, and he should know. He’s the guy who makes it go.
It’s a simple story of a baby boy, born in a manger, destined to save us all. In Michael DeSanctis’s hands, it’s also a work of art.
Every year since 2013, DeSanctis, a professor of fine arts and theology at Gannon University, has constructed a crèche to display in the window of Gannon’s bookstore. The nativity scenes are different each year — one imagines the birth taking place in an Italian setting near a produce stand, another in an austere, rural desert cave — but all serve the same purpose: to tell, in painstaking and powerful three-dimensional detail, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
An effort that began out of a desire to educate his students about Christ’s birth story was born years earlier at the feet of his grandfather, an Italian-trained church painter-decorator who taught DeSanctis how to repair plaster statues, do faux-marbling and apply gold leaf.
The process of creating a crèche takes about a year, starting with a concept and preliminary sketch and then, later, a construction drawing where DeSanctis’s love of architectural forms is evident.
A master improviser, DeSanctis scrounges thrift stores for an odd piece of Styrofoam, netting from a flyswatter, a miniature wicker basket that wouldn’t look out of place in a doll’s house. Wrappers from butterscotch candies double as the orange flames of a tiny campfire.
DeSanctis spackles and nails it all together during quiet, contemplative hours spent in what he laughingly calls “Advent Attic,” a space on the top floor of his home that serves as his studio.
The end result is what he calls a “window into the miraculous.”
“My hunch as an educator is that people of all ages and stripes are yearning today for something meaningful beyond the tips of their selfie sticks,” DeSanctis said. “It’s my hope, though, that my displays embody a ‘chalkware theology’ as serious as anything I might utter in a lecture hall or include in some stuffy conference paper. They’re 3-dimensional icons, windows onto the miraculous, and the means by which I encourage at least one academic community to ponder the marvel of Christ’s birth.”
In addition to teaching at Gannon, DeSanctis is an acclaimed liturgical designer, working with architects and parishes to design churches. He developed a relationship with Erie’s First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in the early 2000s as it was undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation of the sanctuary. His crèches from 2013 to 2016 have now been put on display here in its Community Gallery.
DeSanctis has earned accolades locally and nationally for his work, but the crèches are about giving glory, not receiving it. The act of constructing each scene is a prayer, he said.
“It’s prayer for my hands as well as for my mind,” DeSanctis said. “I’m constantly having to ask myself ‘To what extent do I believe in any of this? An invisible God, a virgin birth, a Christ who actually survives death?’ I’m a 60-year-old man with a Ph.D. Ever since I was in grade school I was immersed in the scientific method. How in 2017 do you go on in believing a little infant coming as the son of God to redeem human kind? And does any of this make a dent in what’s going on in the world today?”
In the silence of “Advent Attic,” he hears the answers.