I knew I would like Micheal Rengers even before I met him.
In the summer of 1978, my first-year housing assignment arrived at my suburban Detroit home, and right above Micheal’s signature as the brand-new housing coordinator was the name of the person who would be my college roommate.
My female roommate.
Yes, I said to my 18-year-old-guy self, this Sarah Lawrence place seems like it’s going to work out just fine, and I have this Micheal Rengers fellow to thank.
This June, Micheal is retiring to New Zealand after 32 years at Sarah Lawrence. Students, faculty, alumnae/i, parents, and administrators all have him to thank for making sure the things that needed to happen at the college he loves not only happened, but were done the right way.
Whether it was choosing just the right Sousa marches to launch sleepy undergraduates out of their Saturday morning beds to work on Mayfair or convincing skeptics that energy-savings windows and doors wouldn’t destroy the graceful look of the old dorms, no detail was too unimportant for Micheal’s attention. And when it took much of a decade to expand the grungy pub to become the Siegel Center, or years wrangling with the details of the Yonkers zoning code to build the Campbell Sports Center, no undertaking was too big, either.
In three decades at Sarah Lawrence, Micheal has been a student, college senator for the class of 1978, coordinator of student affairs/housing director, assistant dean of student affairs, director of campus facilities and administrative services, director of operations and facilities, and finally, vice president of operations.
In that time Micheal has overseen every major building project on campus: the construction of the Ilchman Science Center, Campbell Sports Center, and Kober parking structure; the renovation of the Siegel Center, Bates, and Warren Green; and the construction of the sustainable, LEED-certified Heimbold Visual Arts Center. The latter won awards for green building and was cited by a regional magazine as the “Best New Building” of 2004.
And, in a real-world case of creating a level playing field, Micheal even got the Marshall Field field turned into a bona fide, intercollegiate softball diamond. That’s all in addition to everything from wiring the campus for Internet access to making sure flowers were planted, vegan meals got served, first-year roommates didn’t kill each other, and graduation tents always were the right color.
Seriously, you want to incur the wrath of Micheal? Louse up something small (he doesn’t give you the chance to louse up something big). At one point, Micheal hired me as a student driver to make the bakery pick-up for the old Coffeehaus in MacCracken, detailing a specific order to be picked up at a specific time on specific days from a specific Italian bakery near the Yonkers Raceway. So naturally, I forgot the black-and-white cookies.
“Nothing happens without him being aware of it,” says Sha Fagan, director of libraries and academic computing, who’s seen Micheal replace the old card catalogs, revamp the reading room and install French drains to prevent flooding at the Esther Raushenbush Library.
“He’s on every committee. At any public event, whether it’s commencement or the inauguration of the president” —he’s on his third— “he’s always there making sure things work. He knows the College through and through. He's just very much part of the fabric of what goes on. Micheal is the College; he lived the College.”
Fagan continues: “It takes a lot of careful juggling, and Micheal just keeps a lot of it in his head. He’s going to be very hard to replace. For a long time we’ll be looking around and saying, ‘We need to talk to Micheal.’”
I wound up talking to Micheal many times in my years at Sarah Lawrence, when his friendship and guidance made running the campus newspaper for three years seem like an almost sane decision. I like to think it was his way of making up for the bearded louse he chose to replace my original comely Mediterranean roommate.
It’s was the only mistake I ever saw Micheal make.
Brian O’Connor is an award-winning columnist for The Detroit News.