“Let’s talk about Garvey.”
Four words that may make any Mercyhurst administrator cringe. They certainly make me cringe. But let’s talk about it anyway.
For over 10 years now, a giant elephant has been rotting right smack at the center of the University’s campus. That elephant is Garvey Park. You’ve probably been there. It’s that place with those benches and that clock and that bell that I guess we have to ring Quasimodo-style every time we win a game now (though it’s become apparent that my Monopoly victories are not considered a valid reason).
However, the elephant really isn’t so much the park itself. Rather, it’s the park’s current honorary namesake, former Mercyhurst President William Garvey, Ph.D., that is bungled with controversy.
The name carries with it a dark period of the school’s history that you will not find highlighted alongside the endearing determination of Sister Egan on the Mercyhurst website’s history section, and is one that is likely (and advisably) glossed over rather quickly by Ambassadors as they trek across campus with wide-eyed herds of parents and prospective students.
Stories such as Garvey’s final months with Mercyhurst are obviously riddled with nuance. I will attempt to summarize the situation as succinctly as possible for those unfamiliar with the controversial events.
For Mercyhurst’s purposes, it all started Oct. 10, 2004, when the Erie Times-News published an article in which six men accused then-President Garvey of sexually abusing them when they were minors throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Garvey had been the grade-school basketball coach of three of the accusers.
When the papers hit the stands, the Mercyhurst Board of Trustees immediately stood by its president of 25 years, who referred to the accusations as “fictitious and unsubstantiated” as well as “patently untrue,” according to the Erie Times-News. However, as the detailed accounts persisted, the trustees hired an investigation team to look into the serious claims that had been made of Garvey’s past.
On Dec. 15, 2004, the head of the investigation, a retired judge Michael Palmisano, issued a one-page memo informing the board of trustees chair that the allegations of sexual assault published by the Erie Times-News “appear to have some merit.”
Garvey, who was 69 at the time, maintained his innocence and announced his retirement the following day, citing health reasons caused by the stress of the situation, the Erie Times-News reported. The investigation by the college was stopped. On Feb. 24, 2005, temporary president Michael McQuillen, Ph.D., took over as head of the school for a year before handing it off to Thomas Gamble, Ph.D., in 2006.
Today, direct reminders of Garvey can be found in only two places at Mercyhurst University: a portrait mounted in the Walker Reading Room and the park at the center of campus.
Garvey was never charged or convicted of anything and is, of course, innocent until proven otherwise. However, the circumstances of his retirement were uncomfortable and concerning, to put it mildly. Here was a man who had been a civic leader and employee at Mercyhurst for 43 years, manning the helm for 25 of them. The amount of pain, confusion and betrayal felt by many in the tight-knit Mercyhurst community must have been substantial.
I’m not writing this article to open old scabs or rekindle past pain experienced by the Mercyhurst community, a past pain that I personally was not around to endure. I’m writing instead in an attempt to address and suggest the sewing of an open wound that has been preserved and memorialized for over a decade now.
To be clear, I am not suggesting we sweep our past under a rug and try to pretend it never happened. Far from it. Garvey was the longest serving president in the school’s history and, for better or for worse, helped make Mercyhurst University into the institution it is today. His influence is unavoidable. His legacy should be discussed and considered – used as a segway to confronting important issues of today. It does not, however, need to be honored in stone in the middle of a University so protective and proud of its landmarked grounds.
I am not the first person to hold this view.
At the beginning of the academic year following Garvey’s retirement, the Mercyhurst College Faculty Senate formally requested that the college change the name of Garvey Park. According to an article published by Erie Times-News on Oct. 1, 2005, the Senate, many of whom are still an integral part of the University today, proposed the new name of “Advent Park” for the area to help “signify healing” and the “advent of a new era” for the school.
Their proposal was rejected by the administration at the time.
As Mercyhurst University enters into a new era with a new president intent on forming new traditions, there is no better time to clean up the elephant sitting in the heart of our campus. It is time for a fresh dedication and a fresh start for a park, and a community, that deserves one.