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Towson president completes unusual rise from theater to her alma mater's top job

As the chandeliers began to swing and the ceiling panels shifted to and fro, the interviewers seated around the hotel conference table seemed uncertain how to react.

Was Baltimore really experiencing an earthquake? In the middle of a meeting vital to the future of Towson University?

Maravene Loeschke probably had the most reason to be nervous. After all, she was the one interviewing for the presidency of her alma mater. But in her many years as an actor and director, Loeschke had seen performers nearly flattened by falling curtains and productions marred by rain pouring through the ceiling.

"You just don't get fazed by stuff later in life," she says.

So on that shaky August afternoon, she coolly suggested that the interview move to the parking lot, and she kept right on giving polished answers as the world went a little crazy around her.

"We were all playing with our BlackBerries, which had to be at least mildly distracting," says former state regent David Nevins, who was on the search committee. "But she didn't miss a beat. She's a pro."

The episode summed up a view Loeschke has held for many years — there is no skill she uses as a high-powered administrator that she did not hone in the theater. Loeschke, who took over the top job at Towson earlier this month, might be the only college president in the country whose academic background is in acting.

But she regards the progression as logical, not exotic.

"Everything ties back to it," she says of her experience in theater. "Conflict resolution, debate, time management, critical thinking, people skills. I mean, I even know how to use an electric saw."

It goes beyond the multiplicity of talents she developed. Loeschke knows that many people regard acting as a form of lying. But she sees it as quite the opposite, a search for the truth about who you are in a given scenario. If you master that ability, you can come off well in any setting.

"Much of life is about wearing the right persona at the right time," she says.

Rarely does a day go by when she does not discuss her unusual path from theater to president's office. "Some people just love it," she says. "They say we need something different. Other people find it astonishingly inappropriate. But it's always a conversation. I don't mind it; it makes me a little bit unique."

She grins, recalling a recent conversation with Towson theater majors. One of them told her, "Thank God you're here! My parents always ask me what this will lead to. And now I can say I'll be the president of a university."

Loeschke, 65, has faced some anonymous grumbles about her academic background. She earned her doctorate from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, which has long specialized in degree programs for students who don't take classes on campus. Loeschke does not shy away from talking about it, noting that the school is accredited. She says she wanted to study the use of mime to promote self-expression among blind students and that her plan didn't fit with more traditional doctoral programs.

Nevins says the committee interviewed candidates with more ostensibly prestigious degrees but adds that it would have been a "sad day" if Towson had turned up its nose at one of its own graduates.

"We didn't concentrate on her academic discipline," Nevins says. "We were more interested in who she was and what she would do. The support for Maravene was overwhelming."

For those who know her best, Loeschke's affinity for leadership is nothing new.

Dick Gillespie sensed a commanding presence about Loeschke from the moment he recruited her to Towson's theater program in the mid-1960s. He got so used to following her lead, in fact, that he married her years later.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," he says of her rise to leading thousands of students and faculty members. "She needs to run things. The main reason is that she likes to get things done, and she hates to be under someone who doesn't know how to get things done."

Loeschke grew up in Parkville and recalls a childhood world of rich imagination and innovation in the alleys between the rowhouses. She and her friends couldn't afford to go to a miniature golf course, so they made their own.

"I started about five businesses in that alley," she says. "I was a bossy little kid, so they let me."

The first day she walked into Parkville High School, she saw tryout signs for a student production of "Our Town." She got the lead part.

She fell in love with the stage and made plans to study theater at the University of Maryland. But her life's course changed when an abrupt man showed up in her high school drama class, saying he needed recruits for a new acting program at Towson.

"I did not care for him at all," she says of that guy, Gillespie. "Except he was brilliant, and he set the bar so high for us."

When she declared that she'd study theater, her father, a county highways worker, said, "I'm not paying for that." But Loeschke didn't care.

At Towson, she joined a small group of dedicated actors. She showed her moxie when, as an 18-year-old freshman, she confronted Gillespie about his perpetual lateness. Fine, he said, be my assistant and keep me on track.

"Not unless you do what I tell you," she recalls telling her mentor. "So I spent the next four years marching around telling him what to do."

That was hardly the end of their testy relations.

"She was always angry at me, because I didn't cast her very much," he says over an omelet at the Towson Diner. "She had this terrible Baltimore dialect."

So Loeschke spent the entire summer between her sophomore and junior years listening to recorded plays and dialogues. "When she came back in the fall, I nearly fell over," says Gillespie, whom she married in 1981. "She had a completely different voice."

She had every intention of decamping to New York after graduation and living the vagabond life of an aspiring actor. But Gillespie asked her to stick around for one more semester and fill in for a departed acting instructor.

To her surprise, she liked teaching.

"Performing is a personal satisfaction that you've used your talent to move somebody," she says. "But when you're teaching students and you gently tell them how to improve a scene, and it's so much better when they come back, I don't know that there's anything more rewarding."

Shohreh Kaynama, the dean of Towson's business and economics college, had little use for acting when she registered for Loeschke's class to fill a requirement back in the 1970s.

"But she was such a powerful teacher that she transformed me and a lot of others," Kaynama says. "When I think back to courses I remember from my undergraduate days, there are few. But hers is at the top."

Loeschke was able to form a personal connection with each student, Kaynama says, and empathy for others lay at the core of her acting instruction. "I still use a lot of things that I learned in the class," she says.

But Loeschke the teacher wasn't all about inspiration. Gillespie says her toughness put his own to shame. She insisted that advanced acting students show up on time or flunk, arguing that if they showed up late to auditions in New York, they'd never get hired.

Once, a student was late and Loeschke ordered the class to move past the young woman's scene. Moments later, a policeman walked in with the tardy actress. She had been driving on the Beltway with two flat tires, endangering fellow drivers as she vainly tried to make Loeschke's class.

Loeschke finally relented and allowed the student to perform her scene. What did that mean for the lateness policy? "It means that if you're late," Loeschke told the class, "you better show up with a cop."

After 13 years as an instructor and professor, Loeschke was asked to become department chair in 1983. After 13 years of that, she was asked to become dean of fine arts. As had been the case with teaching, she never anticipated becoming an administrator. But she liked the power it afforded her to affect even more students.

Longtime stage and television actor John Glover, who graduated from Towson a few years before Loeschke, remembers visiting his friend in her new dean's office. She had packed the room with many different types of chairs and Glover asked why.

"I learn so much about a person by which chair they choose," Loeschke replied.

"She's such a smart cookie," says Glover, who credits Loeschke's lessons in empathy with helping his own craft.

Loeschke kept saying yes to bigger jobs and kept enjoying the bigger scope, though leaving Towson in 2002 to become provost at Pennsylvania's Wilkes University was not easy. Gillespie says she wasn't long from retiring as president at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania when the opening arose at Towson.

When she returned to be introduced as Towson president in September, she spent nearly an hour, fielding hugs from all the people who were happy to see her back.

"I think it made a lot of sense," Kaynama says of her hiring. "If she could make a believer out of the most negative students in her class, she can lead a faculty and stakeholders who might not have the same views as her."

Early on, Loeschke has emphasized the importance of getting a fair share of funding for the university during tough economic times and improving the relationship with the surrounding community.

It's mid-January, and Loeschke has been in her office for a bit more than a week. On the walls and shelves are items you'd expect from a college bigwig — photos with President Barack Obama at a Towson basketball game — and those you wouldn't — a copy of "All About Mime" and a montage of various acting roles she performed for the Maryland Arts Festival.

Loeschke is reflecting on her journey, the way her father used to drop her off at 8 a.m. underneath the clock tower atop Stephens Hall.

"I sit here, looking at that clock," she says, nodding out the window. "And I think about little me running around and getting an education. I'm just delighted that it's in my care now."

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