Rick Gagliano: An Educational Mentor
Born and raised in Milwaukee with a nostalgic passion for the city, MSOE’s Rick Gagliano has dedicated his career to using education as a tool to mentor and empower students of all ages.
Q: What is it about Milwaukee that makes you most happy to live here?
A: I love the atmosphere. I know we are the 25th largest city in the Midwest, but there is an atmosphere of a small town. People a neighborhood restaurant, or bar, or store they love to go to, with some that have been around for generations. They can pick up the phone and speak to their Alderman or State Representative/Senator. We can call a city department and know that the person on the other end lives in and cares for the city as much as we do. People love our neighborhoods and support them.
Q: Do you think that growing-up in Milwaukee was an influence on your life?
A: Yes, it’s home. When I lived in Tennessee, Washington D.C., or in other parts of Wisconsin, I compared those places to the Milwaukee area. Still to this day, I rarely drive the freeway. I would rather take side streets literally wherever I go. I love going up Oklahoma or Mitchell or National or Wisconsin or North or Capitol Drive to see what is new in each neighborhood. The work ethic of the people of Milwaukee cannot compare to that of any other city. I sincerely believe that. Whether our citizens work at MillerCoors, McDonalds, Home Depot, or the local forge shop, our residents work hard. While some community employers fail to respect and support them, I believe they have earned the admiration of their customers and community.
Q: How has Milwaukee changed over the years in ways that have made you proud, and disappointed?
A: The city is fantastic. We have great sports teams who make their fans proud, great parks, museums, and theaters. Development is going on in a variety of neighborhoods, not just a select few, and have citizens of all backgrounds who truly love their community. But I have been disappointed at the increase in crime, the condition of our streets, and the failure of some of our leaders to take ownership for the problems within the community, or their inability to face this reality. We need to seek dramatic changes in the leadership of our city institutions.
Q: Was there any event in Milwaukee’s history that had an impact on your life?
A: I think it was the Chapter 220 Voluntary Integration program and the failure of some suburban communities to initially support it. We had an opportunity for MPS and the suburbs to work together to make education a priority for all it’s citizens. But over the years, the program has continued to suffer. I read that in recent years there were hundreds of students on a waiting list to participate, all seeking an opportunity for good education around Milwaukee. We hear talk about a free college education in the future, but why are we failing to help those students in need now?
Q: What is your most profound memory of Father James Groppi?
A: I was always impressed with Father Groppi. I contacted him in 1975 about speaking to my high school senior class about his righteous cause, but unfortunately our suburban school administration felt he was too controversial. Funny thing, they said no to my second choice, former Governor Warren Knowles. They did accept my third option, two local state representatives debating the death penalty. Perhaps the administration felt that subject was less controversial than Civil Rights. Every time I go past Groppi’s market, I imagine the conversations that must have taken place in that store during the heyday of his activism.
Q: How has your faith been a part of your work?
A: Faith has always been a part of my life. I make mistakes and yet I know through the conversations I have with God that He understands the struggles that life brings. I remember the religious role models in my life like Father William Podolak, Father Michael Grellinger, and my great Aunt, Sister Mary Servanda Gagliano, and ask myself how would they have responded to a situation. Or I think back on my talks with them. At one point in my life I was seeking greater clarification and started visiting different Christian-based churches. I remember Father Podolak saying to me “as long as you are serving God, that’s what matters.”
Q: What was your experience like to serve as a Congressional Page in Washington, DC?
A: Sometimes we never appreciate what we had or did until years later. While I knew I was doing something important and being witness to an amazing time in our nation’s history, like the Bicentennial and 1976 Presidential election, looking back I wish I taken greater advantage of the experience. It still remains a part of my life through the Congressional Page Alumni Association and my love of politics and government. I can’t believe it has been 40 years ago this summer.
Q: Did you ever consider a career in politics?
A: I ran for and was elected to serve as a Committeeman in my hometown of Cudahy when I was 18. I later was elected to the same position in my district in Milwaukee. Committeemen used to appoint the election workers in the local polling wards. When I was 19, and then again when I was 20, I ran for and was finally elected to serve a three-year term on the Cudahy School Board. But I resigned after 18 months. The School Board experience soured me to political service in an elected capacity. I tried one more time after that when I ran for County Supervisor, but didn’t get past the primary. I did serve for five years on the local draft board in the mid-1980s and have since been reappointed to one of the local Milwaukee boards for the Selective Service System (SSS). And I periodically help out on political campaigns, with my most recent role managing one of the Facebook pages for Martin O’Malley for President.
Q: You are a great story teller, did you ever consider becoming a writer?
A: I love telling stories. I think I gained that trait from my father and mother who told me great stories of their lives growing up and their experiences. My friends have encouraged me to be a stand-up comic or a writer, but I think I wouldn’t be good at either. Each story is unique, but only humorously appropriate in that unique moment when it is shared to delight those who can truly understand it’s context and value.
Q: What was it like to have training experiences with the US military and federal law enforcement agents? What lessons did you learn?
A: I learned that I would not have gotten along with a drill sergeant and that those who choose military service are true patriots. I wish every single American could spend a week observing military training. They would gain an appreciation for the true dedication of each of those who have chosen to serve. Being able to personally participate was amazing. I had the chance to join in various training exercises at U.S. Army Bases like Fort Knox, the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Naval Submarine Base at Kings Bay, and Marine Corps Base Quantico. These experiences took place during a time when these soldiers and sailors knew that the wars in the Middle East were going strong and that they would be called upon to go.
With regard to my being a part of the FBI’s Citizen Academy, I found that to be the most beneficial. I literally use that experience each day when I drive through the city or at work. I am more cognizant of my community and the role that the FBI plays to protect our citizens. Biggest lesson I learned is that the FBI supports and celebrates the rights of our citizens to speak up at the injustices they see or perceive within our government and communities. They will only take an active role if the same citizens threaten or harm those within the community.
Q: In your educational roles you have encouraged networking, why do you think this is important?
A: One never knows all that the person next to or across from them knows. So when we network, we gain additional knowledge and experiences from those around us. This could be the difference between success and failure at each level. LinkedIn has made networking a part of our lives and its free. It is the professional community’s version of Facebook. Networking is education via the life experiences of those who walk beside us, before us, and after us.
Q: What was the most memorable networking connection you helped facilitate?
A: One of our MSOE students was interested in auto design and he was able to connect to Frank Stephenson, an American automobile designer widely known for his 2001 design of the iconic MINI as well as notable design work at Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and McLaren. For me personally it was connecting to Dwight Chapin, former Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon.
Q: What drives you to be mentor for the college students?
A: I think it’s the right thing to do. Every person should be a mentor. It might not be as a part of a specific program, but mentor however you can. Give them advice when serving them at a restaurant, provide them insight in the work place, support them in your neighborhoods. Those in college today will definitely be in a position to influence, positively or negatively, our society in the future. Mentor them now and we may not suffer as a result of their avoidable mistakes in the future.
Q: In your previous role as Director of Student Life at MSOE, what did you enjoy most about supporting social and cultural events for students?
A: I really focused on getting our students off campus and experience the city. We took them to plays, sports events, movies, museums, restaurants, and such. I enjoyed seeing how well they interacted with those in the community and vice-versa. I truly believe the community gained a greater appreciation for our MSOE students beyond what they knew from news reports.
Q: In your current position managing the MSOE Grohmann Tower Apartments, how do you manage student problems? What is the most common issue you deal with?
A: I have worked to create an environment that is free of the standard student problems faced in college residences. Ten percent of our residents work within the building and are therefore working with residents to create an environment that is clean, respectable, and supportive. When dealing with student problems, I like to remind myself of what my supervisors said and personally demonstrated. I call it the “Father Flanagan Goes to College” philosophy. There literally is no such thing as a bad college student.
Q: Do you see any parallels between student housing issues and those of public housing in Milwaukee?
A: If you create a hostile, non-trusting, uncaring environment, then those who reside there will reflect that philosophy in all that they do. Build a solid foundation based upon respect, support and cleanliness each and every day, then I believe the environment will begin to reflect that also.
Q: What was the most important lesson you learned from doing community outreach work?
A: That we have great people within our communities. Some seem to have their backs up against the wall and because of this seem to strike out. But I don’t blame them. I may not support them, but I think they have a right to be heard. Our city is great, but we need to do more effort. I read how our city is one of the most segregated in the country and that is not going to change overnight. So accept that fact for today and work to develop each of our neighborhoods equally, so that maybe tomorrow will be different.
Q: How does the situation of current college students compare to your experience going to school?
A: I am thrilled with the open-mindedness of today’s students. I find that neither the politically conservative nor liberal college student today is as close-minded as they were in my day. Their leaders of each movement might be, but the next generation gives me hope that it will get better. The sad part is that students don’t vote and it is impossible to convince them to do so. But when the community has a turnout of ten percent, then where are those role models to demonstrate the importance of voting? People talk about wanting change, but won’t exercise the most basic right by voting to bring change. Social media petitions and postings won’t improve our government, voting does. I voted in just about every election since I gained the right years ago. I know of too many students who have never voted.
Q: Is there anything the public can do to help improve the conditions of education in Milwaukee?
A: I think MPS has grown so big that it can only fail. A radical solution is to break the district down into smaller districts with their own school boards and their own district administrators. Let each neighborhood then hold that leadership responsible for their successes or failures. We tend to do that now with the principals and teachers, but they are subject to the restraints and consistencies of the larger district. Why should the Southside dictate what the Northside does or the Westside to the Eastside.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give to any graduating college student?
A: Become a part of your community. Vote. Become an active alumni at your school. Remember all those things that frustrated you about your college experience, and demand changes so that it won’t happen to someone who follows you. Periodically shake things up. Be a good person and are. Remember, one day you will wake up and it will be 50 years later.
Watch the video series that was produced as a companion report for this Q&A interview with Rick Gagliano.