Anne Arundel Community College President Tom Florestano was getting ready to introduce a representative of the Salvation Army to an audience of some 200 at the staff Christmas party when something leaped into his head. And being Tom Florestano, he just said it.
"His off-hand remark was 'This is a nice gathering, but later on, when we get the women out of here and get the Grateful Dead in, we'll have a much better time,' " math professor John Wisthoff recalled. "One woman said to me 'What was that?' I said 'That's Tom.' "
People who know Florestano have come to expect this sort of thingfrom the man who was born in an apartment above an Annapolis grocerystore. The Florestano style has emerged over the years in a trail ofblunt talk and a record of success at the school of 12,150 full and part-time students.
The 6-foot-3 doctor of education, with the hound-dog face and the beefy hands of a laborer, rattles some people, but gets results.
Despite, or perhaps on account of, the rough edge,Florestano has managed to steer through the politics within and without the college with aplomb. When he assumed the presidency nearly 12years ago, the school was a mess of declining enrollments, staff in-fighting and slumping morale.
Today, Florestano, who lives in Crofton, likes to point out how Arundel students who transfer to the University of Maryland, Towson State and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, do as well in their first year as the students already there. He also points to the 98 percent pass rate of Arundel nursing students in the last state licensing examinations.
But the best measure, he said, is enrollments, which have soared since the mid-1980s, jumping from 8,000 in just the last three years.
"The ultimate test is, if we weren't doing the job, our enrollments wouldn't be blossoming," Florestano said.
That expansion surely is due in part to the general growth of Anne Arundel County, but longtime board of trustee member Robert J. DiAiso of Crofton gives Florestano much of the credit for turning the school around.
"He was there at the right time," said DiAiso, a board member since 1974. "He just brought in a whole new approach."
Former County Executive O. James Lighthizer summed up the Florestano formula this way: "Good leadership, good management and shameless marketing."
Florestano's predecessor, Justus Sundermann, served just three years before the board of trustees voted not to renew his contract. DiAiso described him as a "confrontationalguy, very dictatorial," who was not always "honest with the County Council."
His administration was marked by bickering among factionson the staff. It was during Sundermann's presidency that the women of the faculty sued the school for sex discrimination over equal pay. This resulted in bad press, and the bad press, DiAiso believes, hurt the school's ability to attract students and quality staff.
Enter Florestano in July 1979. Recipient of a master's degree and a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Maryland, he had served as dean of continuing education at Anne Arundel from 1969 to 1974, then head of evening and community education at Prince George's County Community College.
While Sundermann was brought in from Michigan, Florestano was the local boy who made good.
When he was born in July 1932, his Sicilian immigrant father and Italian immigrant mother were making their home on the second floor of the family grocery store, in a building that later became Riordan's restaurant. He grew up in a family of five brothers and played lacrosse at St. Mary's High School. When he entered the University of Maryland, he said, he "never expected to come back" to the Annapolis area.
His family hadalready made itself an institution in town. Not only was there the family grocery, there was his uncle, Sam Lorea, who ran a tavern on City Dock, where Mum's restaurant stands now.
"It was a working-man's bar," said Florestano, the sort of place where the tweed brigade from St. John's College and the oystermen could stand side-by-side and absorb a few 20-cent beers.
And when Sam Lorea's nephew took the helm of Anne Arundel Community College, he brought with him the credentials of an academic and the earthy touch of a saloon keeper.
Forone thing, he listens, said trustee Irene E. Newhouse, of Linthicum,who joined the board the year Florestano was hired.
"He's a very open person, he includes us as much as possible" in his decisions, Newhouse said.
DiAiso said Florestano began his work as president byestablishing forums through which groups of faculty and administrators could express their views. He set up a faculty senate and established an aggressive marketing program, setting up booths in shopping malls and increased mailings. He also simplified the registration process and allowed some mail-in registration.
Florestano has taken an active role in recruiting administrators and faculty members, and made the college a more attractive place to work by helping to boost faculty pay. Since he arrived, salaries at Arundel have jumped from seventh to first among the state's 17 community colleges.
That's due largely to hefty support from the county, and Florestano has no end of praise for former County Executive Lighthizer. The two have formed a mutual admiration society.
Lighthizer said Florestano "played county government like a violin. He's a master at selling the communityon the college and selling the college to the elected officials."
When he took office, Florestano named a dean of liberal arts and a dean of careers -- to make clear that the two chief divisions of the school's instruction were separate and equal. When he arrived, said Florestano, "there was some confusion as to what the mission of the college was."
Florestano uses that term "mission" a fair amount, and that's about as highfalutin as his language gets. He has no illusionsabout building a "Dartmouth on the Severn," as the school used to befacetiously known. He knows the school's main job is to prepare students either to transfer to four-year schools, or for careers in, say,law enforcement, nursing or radiology.
"I'm not training philosopher kings," he said in a recent meeting with members of County Executive Robert R. Neall's transition team, in explaining the addition of a radiology course. "These people are going to go right back and be working at Arundel General."