The President's Counselor

By John Marchese

Photos by Rob Carlin

From where he stands on this gray and drizzly spring morning, Kevin Condron ’67 can point up to the window of the room in Beaven Hall he first occupied as a freshman in 1963. Much has changed in that time—from the campus dress codes (“We wore jackets and ties to class”) to the building itself, which is now a wing of the Integrated Science Complex, the $42 million project that Condron had more than a little to do with making a reality.

The way Condron tells it, his four years studying at Holy Cross did much to make him the man he is. “Ethics, morals, a sense of right from wrong,” he says, beginning a list of lessons he learned here on Mount St. James. “Caring for other people. A sense of what it means to work hard and be rewarded for hard work. Service to other people. Those are all the ideals you learn here and take with you for your whole life.”

He didn’t take them away for very long. Though he grew up in Scranton, Pa., Condron settled in Worcester a few years after college. He had married a local girl—the former Clare Kennedy—who, after nearly 50 years of marriage and five children, still doesn’t like him telling the story of how they met—she and some friends picked him up hitchhiking from campus to downtown. Back in Worcester, Condron started to build a business and would soon pitch in to help bolster the city’s economy and prospects. And, for 21 years, he would help Holy Cross move into the complex and challenging new century as a member of the Board of Trustees, for the last six years of that tenure serving as the Board chairman.

As he stepped down from the Board in early May, Condron received a newly created award for Trustee service. Named for him, it was accompanied by a citation itemizing a few of his many contributions to the College over the years. He counseled four presidents and served on the committees that selected three of them. He helped lead three major fundraising campaigns and chaired the gift committee several times for his own Class of 1967. Condron also chaired the Trustees’ committee that reviewed the College’s athletics program in 1996, and, more recently, was on the search committee for a new athletics director. 

“As I think about all that Kevin has contributed,” says Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., president of Holy Cross, “one thing is his wisdom—his perspective on the College and the importance of relationships among various constituencies. The other is his perspective of time. He was on the Board so long that he really understands our history.”

Kevin Condron is not much for self-aggrandizement. Of his role as founder and chairman of the multi-state, multi-million dollar plumbing supply company, Granite Group Wholesalers, he says, “I’m a guy who sells toilets for a living.” He is similarly self-effacing as he evaluates his long tenure on the Holy Cross Board of Trustees.

“The overall thing in my mind,” Condron says on this rainy day on campus, “is that I had a real passion for this place because of what it did for me. I really enjoyed my work here because of that. I felt I was paying back an enormous gift that I received.”

In the late summer of 1963, Condron and his parents drove to Worcester from Scranton in a Ford station wagon, though he hardly needed the extra space. “In those days you didn’t have computers and TVs,” he recalls. “You came with a suitcase.”

His father, Philip, had graduated from Holy Cross in 1941; his Uncle Joseph, in 1944. His mother’s brother, Peter Godwin, was Class of 1937. Now Kevin, an 18-year-old second-generation Crusader, moved into Beaven Hall, planning to study political science, with a long-range plan of entering law and politics.

“He was a big Dem,” says his classmate and dormitory mate, the television commentator and political analyst Chris Matthews ’67. “I was a lot more conservative then.” The first-year students would often argue politics over coffee in the Kimball Hall cafeteria. “He was always talking about this politician named Spike Casey from Scranton,” Matthews remembers. (Editor’s note: “Spike” Casey is the late, former Pennsylvania state senator, auditor general and governor, Robert P. Casey ’53, whose son, Bob Casey Jr. ’82, currently serves as a U.S. senator from the Keystone State.) “Kevin would have been a good politician. He was a leader. He became president of the 1843 Club (see photo, Condron is the second from left), which was a very big deal.”

The 1843 Club, named for the founding year of the College and not to be confused with today’s 1843 Society for planned giving, produced weekend dances and concerts on a campus that was then all male. Condron thinks he won the presidency not so much because of his political skills as his obvious entrepreneurial instincts. He was a kid who had had a profitable paper route; he’d bought his first share of stock when he was 8 years old. 

“We’d do mixers on Friday and Saturday nights,” Condron recalls. “Girls would come in from all the Boston schools on buses. And we’d have a name band—Neil Diamond, The Shirelles. We would break even that night, and then the next night, we’d hire some classmates as the band, pay them a hundred bucks and fill the place again and make a lot of money. That was before credit cards. I’d have a room full of money on Sunday—wastebaskets full of cash. I’d pack it up and bring it to the Bursar’s Office when it opened Monday morning. I guess that’s how I became good at raising money.”

His real skills at fundraising would become obvious—and vital—years later. His preternatural business sense showed itself not long after graduation, when Condron gave up on law school and signed on with the Wall Street securities firm then called Bache & Company. In the training course for new recruits he realized, “There was some sort of gene that took over, and for whatever reason I could look at an income statement or a balance sheet and drill down right into it. Some people can sit down at a piano and never read a note of music and play really well—it’s just something they have. I have a business gene. Luckily, I was able to do something with it.”

After a few years working as a stockbroker, Condron partnered in 1972 with his father-in-law to buy Worcester-based Central Supply, a plumbing wholesaler then doing $2 million in annual sales. He concentrated for a decade on learning and growing the business. “Believe it or not, the lift from $2 million to $4 million was the hardest,” he says. What is now called Granite Group Wholesalers has 27 outlets in all six New England states and does $165 million in annual sales. 

As time passed, Condron found himself more and more involved in civic affairs in his adopted hometown, eventually serving as chairman of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, the Business Development Corporation and the Redevelopment Authority. That’s when he reconnected with someone from his student days at Holy Cross: religion Professor Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49 (above) who was by then president of the College. 

“During school, I knew him to say hello,” Condron recalls. “I never took his course. As the years went on, Fr. Brooks and I connected here in Worcester on a lot of community projects. That was my first close working relationship with him. Then in the early ’90s, when he was still president, he asked me to join the Board.

“After he retired, our relationship became much stronger. He became a mentor to me—in life, business, anything. A true mentor.”

And a comfortable friend whom he could joke with. “I used to say to him,” Condron recalls, ‘Father, when you’re gone, I’m going to come over to the cemetery and write on the back of your tombstone, “Sometimes in error, but never in doubt.” ’

“He had a constant commitment to perfection, and I learned that from him. He wanted to have the best faculty, the best athletic teams, the best campus, the best fundraising effort. He raised the bar so high here, the rest of us just got lifted on his shoulders.”

On a July day in 2012, Condron received a call from Fr. Boroughs, letting him know Fr. Brooks’ health was failing.  “Kevin spent the day with him at his bedside before he died,” Fr. Boroughs remembers. “I think it was an important time for Kevin. And, in retrospect, an important time between the two of us.”

A few days later, Condron climbed the stairs to the pulpit at the funeral Mass in St. Joseph Memorial Chapel and delivered the eulogy for Fr. Brooks. The church was packed with prominent academics and theologians and other dignitaries, and he admits to feeling a bit intimidated by this duty to his friend.

“As we worked together for an institution that we both so dearly loved, our relationship evolved,” Condron told the congregation. “Always the teacher, Fr. Brooks became my mentor. For me, it was a chance to learn at the master’s knee. For him, it was more teaching—the profession that sustained him and engaged him every moment of his life. I don’t know if I was as good a student, but I do know that I will be forever grateful for having had the chance to learn life’s great lessons from a teacher like Fr. Brooks.”

Perhaps it was his close personal relationship with the longest-serving president in Holy Cross history that convinced Condron that his most important job after he assumed chairmanship of the Board in 2008 would be helping to choose a new College president, and, after that, working to ensure the new president could work effectively and live happily.

“I view the Chairman’s biggest job as the ‘care and feeding of the president’,” Condron says. “Making sure he’s taken care of. Watching that he gets enough rest, the proper vacation. That people aren’t putting too much pressure on him—being a conduit between him and the Board so that there aren’t 15 or 20 people coming at him at once. Making sure he has all the resources he needs.”

Fr. Boroughs saw that concern even in the early days of the search process, when he was still at Georgetown University and being considered for the Holy Cross presidency. “Kevin said to me, ‘Why don’t I come down to Washington and see you,’” he remembers. “He spent time with me to hear my questions and ask some of his own and determine if I really was a viable candidate. I had been approached by other schools about the job of president, but none were as professional and thoughtful as Kevin was.”

Condron’s dedication to the “care and feeding” of the president is not just a figure of speech. When Fr. Brooks was still president, he would invite his friend and then-vice-president, the late Rev. Francis X. Miller, S.J., ’46 to his Worcester home while his wife and children were at the family’s summer home in New Hampshire and cook them dinner himself. “That was terrific,” Fr. Miller once complimented him. “I didn’t know you could cook.” 

 “Neither does my wife,” Condron replied. “Don’t tell her.”

With the current president, Condron’s concern goes beyond a summer supper. “He’s always concerned about me as a whole person,” Fr. Boroughs says. “To ask about me and my life, to make sure that I can live authentically and healthily—I am struck by how Kevin lives that.” 

Of course, there are many other roles for the Board Chairman to play, and Condron, as he steps down, feels that in one area, he may not have met his own high level of expectations. 

“As I finish up my tour here,” Condron admits, “one regret I have is I wasn’t as open and vocal about the role of the Board, which I don’t think is understood by enough people.”

“For instance,” he continues, “one of the things the Board struggles with is that we have a need-blind admissions policy, and we meet every demonstrated financial need. That’s almost unheard of for a school our size. There are about 38 schools in the country that do it that way, and the number is shrinking. It puts enormous pressure on us because we don’t know until we take a class in what our needs are going to be. 

“Talk about what keeps you up at night,” he says. “That keeps me up at night. You could wake up one morning and learn that it’s going to cost twice as much for the incoming class as the one before. That’s an issue, and how much longer we’ll be able to do it is an issue the Board struggles with. 

“I think that’s poorly understood,” Condron remarks. “Some people think all we do is talk about athletics. We do talk about athletics, but not at that level. The whole issue of the relevance of a college education, the cost of a college education, what a college is going to look like in 20 years—those are the things that a Board talks about and agonizes over.” 

And ultimately, the main way to address those issues is to increase the College’s resources. He may have learned it first as a Holy Cross senior running the 1843 Club, but Condron really came into his own as a fundraiser starting with the College’s “Lift High the Cross” campaign in 1999 (that ultimately produced $216 million in pledges) and continuing through his last days on the Board, as the College laid the foundation for the current comprehensive fundraising campaign, a significant effort begun last July.

Though Chris Matthews remembers the undergraduate Condron as a student who used the hard sell, time and experience have transformed his style, which has become thoughtful and subtle. “He really would have made a good politician,” Matthews says now, “because he’s very good at asking for money. And politicians have to ask all the time. He’s hit me up a number of times. And while he always says, ‘It’s up to you what you can do,’ somehow he always finds out exactly what you can do.”

Thomas M. Flynn ’85, the director of the Office of Principal and Planned Gifts, says, “Kevin and I have had a lot of discussions about how can you ask people for money. ‘Aren’t you uncomfortable?’ I ask. Kevin always says, ‘I don’t find any problem asking for money for Holy Cross because I love it and I’m passionate about it.’”

During Condron’s tenure on the Board, the College continued 29 consecutive years of positive operating margins. During the most recent 20-year period, Holy Cross spent $255 million on investments in new and existing facilities, including $137 million to construct the Hart Wellness Center, Smith Hall, a parking garage, the Integrated  Science Complex, and two new residential buildings, Williams and Figge Halls. This period of construction activity increased the College’s square footage by 25 percent. Condron eschews the importance of this campus growth as an indication of his success.

“For me,” he says, “how many buildings were built during my time as the Chair would be irrelevant. That shouldn’t be the measure of how you did your job. I’ve been the Chair of other organizations, and I view the chairmanship of a higher education institution as different from everything else.”

And Holy Cross is different from other schools. “I found in my travels raising money for the College,” Condron says, “that almost everybody has a special Holy Cross story. Why they came here. A teacher who influenced them—whatever it is, they’ll tell you that story, and you realize why they have such passion for the place.”

Condron’s own Holy Cross story is long and complicated and rich, from the life-changing early lessons as an undergrad, to the day recently when he got to bring his family to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and spend time with fellow alumnus Clarence Thomas ’71. “That was a bucket list thing,” he says.

It has become afternoon on this rainy spring day. Condron has walked through the campus, visiting sites, recalling memories. Now he is seated on a sofa in the reception room of the Jesuit residence. “I guess now I’ve told you my Holy Cross story,” he says.

“I’m proud of what we did here,” Condron concludes. “To do a job like the Chair requires a tremendous amount of energy and focus. There’s a burnout time, a time to say, enough. This is my time to get off the stage.” 

He sinks into the sofa and thinks another few seconds. “But if Holy Cross came back and asked me to do something else, I’d do it in a minute.”

 

John Marchese is a writer based in New York City. His most recent book is The Violin Maker: A Search for the Secrets of Craftsmanship, Sound and Stradivari (Harper Perennial, 2008). He last wrote for this magazine about Presidential speechwriter Jon Favreau ’03. Like Kevin Condron ’67, Marchese is a Scrantonian.

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