Former Towson president still inspiring, serving campus despite terminal cancer

Maravene Loeschke still inspiring Towson U. students, despite facing terminal cancer.

Maravene Loeschke's bucket list is much the same at the twilight of life as it has been all her life.

Doctors have given the former Towson University president a harrowing prognosis: The 68-year-old could live another two weeks to two years. The adrenal cancer that prompted her to step down in December has advanced to her abdomen. She has moved to a senior living facility a couple miles from campus, and she hopes the end doesn't come with pain.

But she's still enmeshed in university life. She speaks at school functions, attends dinners and is working on Towson's 150th anniversary project. Even when home, she receives a steady stream of students — and former students — to whom she provides advice and counsel.

A Towson graduate and former college dean, she launched several mentoring and leadership programs during her nearly three-year tenure as president, and she's determined to continue serving as a role model after leaving her post long before she anticipated.

"I don't know what a luckier life looks like," Loeschke said during a recent interview at the Blakehurst retirement community in Towson. "Mentorship is one of the primary responsibilities we have, to live a life in the world where you give back. I have lived the best life I possibly could have lived."

In January, Towson launched the latest of Loeschke's initiatives, the TU Professional Leadership Program for Women. The program was designed with input from business and community leaders to address challenges women face in the workplace. It will feature training for professional women in commanding respect in the workplace and creating personal brands.

Those who know her say that after spending a career mentoring students, staff and faculty, Loeschke couldn't stop now if she tried.

"I don't get the sense of 'woe is me,' " said Deb Moriarty, Towson's vice president for student affairs. "In fact, when I visit her, the focus of the conversation tends to be about me and my life. Her spirit is strong."

Moriarty recently took Loeschke to the school marching band's banquet, where she personally greeted all 250 members.

When Loeschke speaks about her cancer, it's as if she's breaking news to a loved one who needs to know she has come to terms with the inevitable. She also let Towson down easy.

She said the University System of Maryland, of which Towson is a member, offered her the option of working partial weeks to lengthen her stay. "I just felt that Towson needed and deserved a full-time president, and I couldn't be that," she said. "I retired … because I knew I was going to be too sick to do the job."

Timothy Chandler, who was named interim president, said he's had a smooth transition, though her departure created mixed emotions on campus.

"People are extraordinarily sad that she had to do this," Chandler said. But, he added, they are glad she is taking time to take care of herself. "She has set the institution in a very stable place."

"Her focus has been to support students, to think of their needs, to think of every creative opportunity for the students," said Nancy Grasmick, former state superintendent of public schools. "I've never seen a person in a leadership position of that kind, with a very diverse community and 23,000 students, who is so loved as this woman."

Loeschke's work to mentor others, whether in formal programs or impromptu settings, has marked her legacy not only at the suburban Baltimore school but at other institutions.

As provost of Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, she made undergraduate mentorship part of the curriculum. As president of Mansfield University, also in Pennsylvania, she mentored members of student government and instituted the "I'll Leave the Light On For You" initiative, which allowed students to drop by the on-campus president's house any time the light was lit on its porch.

Sometimes, individual students would visit; sometimes they came in groups. Often, the entire basketball team would show up to sit and talk with her.

When Loeschke returned in 2011 to Towson — where she had been dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication — she brought with her a desire to connect with students.

Towson graduate Angie Hong served as the student member of the selection committee that picked Loeschke and later formed her own relationship with her. Hong said students continue to have a bond with the president after they depart the school.

Hong graduated from Towson in 2012 and took a job in Uganda, evaluating a children's home whose guardian had abused some of the youngsters. Hong turned to Loeschke for support while working to remove the children from the facility and have the guardian sanctioned. The guardian, she said, was ultimately sent to prison.

"During that time, I was going through a lot of emotions; I was being threatened by people," Hong said. Loeschke "was the one I could go to and email. She would almost immediately email me back. She made me a priority and showed she was there to strengthen me."

Loeschke says the work that makes her most proud first took shape at Mansfield, where she and her husband, Richard Gillespie, then Mansfield University boxing coach, took members of the boxing team under their wings. Four students from the team ultimately became fixtures at the president's house, stopping by to do laundry or showing up with girlfriends in tow — usually just in time for dinner.

"Dick took on the responsibility of shaping them into what it was to be men," said Loeschke of her husband, who taught at Towson and founded its theater program. "The mentorship relationship continued with those four [students] beyond their graduation."

Among them was Kyle Smith, who enrolled at Mansfield after losing his grandfather to cancer. Now a Philadelphia police officer, Smith said Loeschke and Gillespie helped fill that void.

Smith, 29, often visits Loeschke and her husband. He recalled when she told him of her diagnosis.

"I said, 'Wow, I'm going to lose another grandparent,' " Smith said. "It was tough to deal with."

But the devastating health news did not end there. Three days before Loeschke received her diagnosis, Gillespie suffered a massive stroke that left him with severe dementia. Now both reside at Blakehurst.

"It's been one of the most difficult periods of my life," said Loeschke. "On a Monday, he had a stroke that threw him into a dementia where he somewhat knows me, and then overnight he didn't know me. And on Wednesday, I was diagnosed."

Loeschke said she has neither remorse nor regrets.

"I've been fortunate to be with the man I love and to have done the work I love, and I'd been healthy all those years," she said. "My feeling is that this is no different than what millions of other people have to deal with.

"My responsibility is to make the most of this," Loeschke said. "I have a lot of good days right now."

On those good days, she's focusing on a project in its infancy: She wants to create a mentorship program between Blakehurst and Towson University.

"We want to connect a TU student with an accomplished Blakehurst resident who has had a successful career in science, the arts, technology, health care, business or other outstanding careers," she said. "The idea is that a career-accomplished Blakehurst resident shares knowledge and guidance to a particular Towson student who is looking to be in that line of work.

"Eventually … I'm going to be sicker, and eventually I'll die," Loeschke said. "My job is to ... try to live a balance of love and gratitude and service. And that is OK with me."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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