As a college professor, Daniel J. LaVista directed student theater productions.
As a college president, he drew comparisons between the skills needed to direct a successful play and those required to lead a successful community college.
Now, as the first chancellor of Baltimore County's community colleges, Dr. LaVista is facing his biggest directing challenge -- pulling together three institutions and their casts of more than 70,000 students and 1,200 full- and part-time employees.
The colleges' trustees named the Illinois college president to the newly created position this week.
Friends and colleagues had only praise for Dr. LaVista, who has been president of the College of Lake County, in the northern suburbs of Chicago, for eight years. They say he will bring considerable people skills to the task of making the reorganization of the county's community colleges a hit.
"He's a very warm person, accessible, and puts you at ease," said Kasson Crooker, arts center director at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. "I'm not surprised at all he has this position. He's a new breed of college administrator," said Mr. Crooker, who has been a friend of Dr. LaVista since the new chancellor was a department chairman at the Ohio college from 1978 to 1982.
Dr. LaVista, 51, has had more than 25 years' experience in community colleges. Before coming to Lorain, he was a faculty member and an administrator at several other community colleges in the Midwest and New York State.
"I am a community college person and have never wished to be anything else in the higher education community," Dr. LaVista wrote in his application to the county's search committee.
As a college president, he was also known to play others' parts -- spending half a day each month working alongside someone else, such as sweeping with the custodians or carrying bedpans with student nurses, he explained in his 13-page application.
Although he has had substantial experience at colleges with more than one campus -- Lake County has two -- Dr. LaVista calls the Baltimore County consolidation "a very big challenge."
But the new chancellor and those who know him say he is up to the challenge.
"He's extremely intelligent and aware of the needs of community colleges," said Mike Bailis, director of vocational and technical educational at the three-campus Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, where Dr. LaVista was vice president for academic affairs in the mid-1980s.
"He has a lot of remarkable gifts. He's a very strong leader. He's very effective in representing the college," said Evelyn Schiele, public relations director at Lake County.
"He's very thorough. He makes me work harder," said James Lumber, chairman of the board of trustees at Lake County. "He's so thorough that sometimes I think, 'Come on, let up a little,' " said Mr. Lumber, who has been on the seven-member elected board for more than 20 years.
Others have described the new chancellor as forceful yet personable, an effective fund-raiser, a community activist and an effective communicator.
"I like people. I can talk to virtually anybody. My background in English, speech and theater gives me confidence in interacting with people. I enjoy doing so," Dr. LaVista wrote in his application.
His leadership style, he said in a telephone interview, is collaborative -- involving people in decisions that affect them and alleviating anxieties.
These "rudiments of leadership," as he put it, are likely to serve him well in Baltimore County where reorganization has brought fears that people will lose jobs and that the individual schools will lose their identities.
The three schools will retain their names, though together they will become known as the Community Colleges of Baltimore County. They also will retain their presidents, who will report to Dr. LaVista instead of directly to the trustees.
Among his accomplishments at Lake County, Dr. LaVista expressed particular pride in attracting minority students and faculty and building the school's endowment fund.
"We have made significant strides in attracting minorities . . . and I feel good about that," he said. "I have a strong personal commitment to that." Baltimore County's community colleges have been criticized for not seeking black faculty and staff and for having a far smaller ratio of minority employees than students.
Lake County, Ill., has a minority population estimated at 16 percent, while the college's minority enrollment is about 20 percent, including blacks, Asians and Hispanics, he said. Baltimore County's community colleges have about a 17 percent minority enrollment -- nearly matching the county's estimated 17.6 percent minority population.
When Dr. LaVista arrived at Lake County, the school had an endowment of about $40,000, he said. Now, that fund is approaching $1 million. "He took our foundation up to $1 million in just about six years," said Mr. Lumber.
The new chancellor said he believes in being active in the community and has a hard time saying no to good causes. He is chairman of the Lake County United Way and an advocate for a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Such community involvement by Dr. LaVista and his wife, Rosemary, was good for the school, Mr. Lumber said. "They are nice people. They are a pleasure to be around."
The LaVistas have two children, Renee, 19, and Michael, 23, and plan to go house-hunting in the county.