Answering the Call

The 10th UMW President Has a Passion for Public Education

Story by Anna Barron Billingsley

Photos by Norm Shafer

Troy D. Paino, 10th president of the University of Mary Washington, stands before George Washington Hall and the bell tower.

Troy D. Paino is the 10th president of the University of Mary Washington.

Troy Paino was set. In his late 20s with a lucrative law career, he was married to his college sweetheart, Kelly. They were anticipating a family, the home of their dreams, and a rich life in Indianapolis.

Fast forward 25 years. Troy Paino was set. Approaching his mid-50s, he was the popular president of Truman State University, living in a magnificent home near campus with his wife and two teenage daughters.

Change has been a constant in the life of Troy Paino, attorney-turned-academic. Not subtle move-to-the-next-neighborhood kind of change, but radical pulling-up-stakes, life-transforming change.

And it’s all in the name of alignment. “I only do things that align with my passions,” he said.

Lured from a flourishing presidency at Missouri’s only public liberal arts university, Troy D. Paino moved this summer into the UMW President’s Office in George Washington Hall, and he and his family took up residence at Brompton. He succeeds Richard V. Hurley, who retired June 30 after serving six years as president.
“I’ve come here to be a part of the remarkable story that is Mary Washington for the next decade,” Paino said. “I see this as a capstone experience … everything I’ve learned on my journey, I am bringing here.”

“I see this as a capstone experience … everything I’ve learned on my journey, I am bringing here.”
– UMW President Troy Paino

And what a journey it has been. Growing up the youngest of five in a “conservative fundamentalist environment,” Paino said he spent much of his childhood in church in Indianapolis. His grandparents pastored an Assemblies of God congregation, and his parents followed in their footsteps.

Like his siblings, Troy Paino enrolled at Evangel College, now Evangel University, a small Christian school in Springfield, Missouri. On his first day there he met fellow freshman Kelly Ragsdale, a girl from southwest Missouri who had worked for a year before enrolling in college. And life never was the same. Thirty-six years later, they share a home, two children, and bedrock values.

“I zeroed in on her,” Troy Paino said of Kelly. “I can be single-minded in pursuit of a goal.” It helped that the two of them had a history class together the next spring. Like Kelly, the instructor in that course, Professor Larry Nelson, “ignited a spark” in Troy Paino.

Paino loaded up on Nelson’s classes and, he said, “those years changed my life.” In a Huffington Post tribute to Nelson, The Mentor That Inspired Me to Inspire, Paino wrote, “By the end of the first 50-minute class, he made me do something remarkable: think.”

That thinking led to a dual degree in history and philosophy. Paino applied those disciplines toward a law degree from Indiana University. Three years into his career with an Indianapolis law firm, Paino grew restless. An offer of an early partnership made him feel “handcuffed,” he said, to a profession for which he had no passion.
He couldn’t quit thinking about the love of history instilled in him by Professor Nelson. “He taught me to consider my own humanity by examining those who came before me.” Paino left the law firm and headed to Michigan State University for a master’s degree and a doctorate in American studies.

He abandoned the salary of corporate law, but for him and Kelly, Paino said, “it’s never been about money or ego.”

Kelly, an educator herself, is forest to Troy’s trees, constant joy to his reflective nature. After more than three decades of marriage, they have an easy banter and appreciate each other’s quirks. “He can be goofy,” Kelly said. She finds his willingness to laugh at himself endearing.

Their new home, Fredericksburg, is within an hour of Kelly’s brother and his family, a vote in its favor. But the move was hardest for the couple’s younger daughter, Chloe, 16, now a junior three-sport athlete at Fredericksburg’s James Monroe High School. She’d spent her formative years in Kirksville, Missouri, and had deep friendships there. Sophia Paino, 19, a sophomore at Des Moines’ Drake University, said her sister should realize that Fredericksburg offers many more opportunities – and a Target.

Their father first heard about the job at Mary Washington in October 2015, but he wasn’t interested. “Truman and I had become a part of each other,” Paino said. Plus, he and Kelly had just dropped Sophia off for her first year at a college 2½ hours by car from their home, and Chloe had 2½ more years of high school.
However, after a great deal of “soul searching” and countless conversations with Kelly and the kids, Troy Paino called the search firm in November to find out if he still could be considered.

Stars aligned, and UMW became “the right school at the right time” for him. Happy and secure at Truman, Paino kept waiting for a sign that pursuit of the Mary Washington presidency was ill-advised. No signs appeared.

Holly Tace Cuellar ’89, then rector of the Board of Visitors, chaired UMW’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee. Troy Paino’s “values resonate perfectly with Mary Washington’s fundamental principles of academic excellence and social uplift,” she said.

“I’ve come here to be a part of the remarkable story that is Mary Washington for the next decade.”
– Troy Paino

Education: More Than a Career

Paino said he was raised with the expectation that he would do “something magnificent” with his life.

In 1997, with his new Ph.D., Paino sent out 70 résumés for college teaching positions but heard little until a letter arrived from Winona State University in Minnesota.

Darrell Krueger was president of Winona State when he interviewed Paino for that faculty position nearly 20 years ago. He knew instantly that Paino was presidential material. “Troy Paino has great judgment and wonderful interpersonal skills, and he is trustworthy,” Krueger said in a recent interview from his retirement home in Utah. “He does what he says he’s going to do, and he builds confidence in the people around him.”

Paino had a brief tenure as a history professor at Winona before Krueger elevated him to dean of liberal arts. “Dr. Krueger saw something in me,” Paino said. “When he retired, he said, ‘I’ll be back for your inauguration.’ That blew me away!”

Shortly thereafter, Truman recruited Dean Paino to become Provost Paino. But when he arrived at Truman, he learned that the president who had hired him no longer had the support of the board and was resigning. “I called Kelly and said, ‘Don’t unpack!’ ”

Any murkiness about his future at Truman soon turned to clarity. The person brought in as interim president was none other than Paino’s mentor, Darrell Krueger.
During the 20 months he served as Truman’s interim president, Krueger brought Paino into every critical decision. As the university undertook a national search for a permanent president, Krueger told board members they needed to look no farther than their own campus. “I said with confidence,” Krueger said, “Troy will rise to the top.”

And so he did. “Every Truman State board member showed faith in me,” Paino said. Thus began six of the most rewarding years of his life. “Being a college president allows me to do what I’m most passionate about,” Paino said. “It’s a vocation that gives my life purpose. Isn’t that everyone’s dream?”

All Roads Led to Mary Washington

As hard as it was for Paino to leave Truman, he was energized by the potential of this public liberal arts university – a “sister institution” to Truman – in the midst of a bustling East Coast corridor.

“Here, you have the best of both worlds,” Paino said. “A small town plus the amenities of a metropolitan area.” He described UMW as “a tributary, not an ivory tower.”

Once he started thinking about where he wanted to finish out his career, “all roads led to Mary Washington,” Paino said. “This is a place where I can feel at home.”

The Painos’ home is the antebellum mansion on Marye’s Heights that was at the center of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. “We love Brompton,” Troy Paino said. He enjoys walking outside with his morning coffee and Oscar, the family dog, to stand under the Brompton Oak – the scene of Mathew Brady’s famous photograph of wounded soldiers – and take it all in.

“It’s awe-inspiring,” he said. “I still get chills.”

Oscar, a lively beagle mix, has made himself right at home in Brompton. On a late-summer evening, Sophia chased Oscar around the house, Chloe got ready for golf practice, and in the kitchen Troy and Kelly Paino prepared pork chops and pasta salad. In his spare time, Troy Paino enjoys reading, running, riding his bike, and sipping an occasional glass of bourbon.

Kelly reminisces about the girls’ younger days, when the four of them would blast music and dance around the coffee table. Since Kelly is a big John Mellencamp fan, her girls took a liking to his Jack and Diane, forever begging their dad to sing “the little ditty.” Now, the family enjoys binge-watching series like Veep and House of Cards.

Work for the Public Good

Kelly Paino, an elementary school reading intervention specialist, said the value of public education has been instilled in all four Painos. “My whole life since kindergarten has been in the public sphere,” said Troy Paino, president of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Public education builds character and allows individuals to work for the public good, to “live a life larger than themselves.”

In his first campuswide address, Paino told faculty and staff that he is inspired by all that Mary Washington offers. He didn’t call UMW an institution. “It’s a community of caring that is bound together in a common cause,” he said.

As he strode across the Dodd Auditorium stage with a handheld mic and no notes, the UMW president seemed to channel his evangelistic forefathers. “We’re all educators,” he declared, mentioning groundskeepers and painters as well as professors. “We face challenging times and difficult issues. We need to work together, not against each other.

“The students are watching us, and we need to model the behavior we want to see in them. We’re their only hope in terms of showing how adults are supposed to behave.”

Being a model of civility doesn’t rule out fun. Just a week earlier, Troy Paino rolled up his pants legs and jumped into the Monroe fountain during a photo shoot on campus. At Truman, he was dubbed “America’s coolest college president” in part because of a video shot during winter break in 2013. T-Pain Misses You – a YouTube video that has garnered more than 80,000 views – features Paino riding a tricycle around a lonely campus.

A self-described nerdy history scholar who carries a pocket U.S. Constitution (“You never know when you’ll encounter a Constitutional conflict”) Paino is also perennially playful. “He is hilarious and constantly cracked me up,” said Kristin Kennedy, receptionist and administrative assistant in the Truman president’s office. “Laughing with him was one of the best parts of the job.”

Troy Paino also inspired her to constantly re-evaluate whether she was making an impact on the world, Kennedy said. Her office mate, Presidential Executive Assistant Traci Hill, said of her former boss, “He wanted nothing more than to have all students achieve their highest aspirations, all staff and faculty members to find joy in both their work and personal lives, and for the institution to excel and prepare itself for the future.”

Most important though, Hill said, “he treated us like family.”

Paino left quite a legacy at Truman. A campaign called Paino Proud collected thousands of dollars for the Troy & Kelly Paino Emergency Student Relief Fund. The Painos asked that donations received in their honor go to help students facing unforeseen financial burdens due to personal or family emergencies.

“The students are watching us, and we need to model the behavior we want to see in them. We’re their only hope in terms of showing how adults are supposed to behave.”
– Troy Paino

Investing in People

Although he has empathy for what is on the minds of faculty, Troy Paino puts students first. Move-in day is moving for him, Paino said. “I take very seriously the well-being of all Mary Washington students,” he said. “Parents are putting into our care the most important thing in their lives.”

Telling UMW faculty and staff that he aspires to lead with his heart first, then with his ears and feet, Paino said he expects to be on Campus Walk, to eat at the University Center, and to brush shoulders with students every day.

Before Paino left Truman, students there persuaded their beloved president to deliver a last lecture. His poignant talk – sprinkled with humor – focused on the most important relationships in Paino’s life. He mentioned family and mentors, and he also included his co-workers Hill and Kennedy. Repeated throughout was his mantra: “Invest in people, not things.”

In the lecture, which he called The Power of Letting Go, Paino talked about his oldest brother, Tommy. The lessons learned from Tommy related to “grace, suffering, and choosing to lead a life of joy regardless of your circumstances.”

Tommy died 17 years ago of ALS at age 52. Upon being diagnosed, Paino’s brother told him “the world split into two parts: things that matter and things that don’t.”
His brother’s life and death caused Troy Paino’s own focus to become crystal clear: “that which I feel called to do and the people in my life.”

After all, Paino said, “at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is lending a hand to someone who needs it.”

 

Comments

  1. Barbara Lawton says:

    CONGRATULATIONS. !!! Just wanted to mention…

    I attended Lakeview AG in Indianapolis 1975-76 . Are you related to those Painos? Pastor Paino baptized me and my 7 year old son I believe I also attended a few Sunday school classes while your brother Tommy was teaching in 1975-76

    How exciting to think that my granddaughter is attending the college whose president might be related to my first pastor.

    Praying for great success on your new journey to touch lives

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