St. Bonaventure president remembered as larger-than-life personality after long battle with COVID-19
Higher education leaders who worked closely with Dennis R. DePerro remember the university president as warm and engaging, often invited to dine with members of the clergy as if he were in their order because others wanted to be around him.
“He was a larger-than-life personality,” said Joseph Zimmer, who served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at St. Bonaventure University, where DePerro was president since 2017. “He was an old-school, handshaking, backslapping, draw-you-into-a-conversation type of guy.”
DePerro died Monday at the age of 62 as a result of complications from COVID-19. He first tested positive for the disease and was admitted to the hospital in December.
St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan university in western New York with about 2,300 full-time-equivalent students, credits DePerro with putting in place new enrollment and marketing strategies after he started as president. During his tenure, the university counted its three largest freshman classes to enroll in the last 11 years.
The university also credits DePerro’s leadership as an online graduate initiative was growing and with launching a capital campaign that raised money to help stand up a new school of health professions.
St. Bonaventure will fly its flag at half-staff in March. Zimmer, its provost, is acting president, a title he was given last month while DePerro was ill.
The president’s death amid the COVID-19 pandemic strikes the St. Bonaventure community hard, Zimmer said. It’s a close-knit community, where roughly nine in 10 students live on campus and alumni stay engaged in “the Bonnies” long after they leave campus.
“This is the person who was our leader and was cheerleading us on through the pandemic, all the way through December,” Zimmer said. “It’s just a horrible tragedy.”
DePerro was the type of person others would visit on a down day because he could cheer them up, Zimmer said. As a leader, DePerro allowed those around him to work with autonomy. He could correct them when necessary without being rude or nasty.
Originally from Buffalo, DePerro spent nearly all of his 39-year career in college administration in upstate New York. For eight years beginning in 1982, he worked in admissions and alumni relations at Buffalo’s Canisius College, his alma mater. He spent five years as dean of admissions and financial aid in Ohio at Marietta College before beginning work at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1995.
He spent 18 years as vice president for enrollment management at Le Moyne, a Jesuit college. He became inaugural dean of Le Moyne’s School of Graduate and Professional Studies in 2013 and is credited with developing health-care programs at the college. He was also a professor of management in the business school there.
DePerro served on a committee that hired Linda LeMura to be the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Le Moyne in 2003. LeMura went on to become provost and is now president at Le Moyne.
LeMura worked with DePerro when she was a dean, provost and president. He earned a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Pennsylvania and had a dream to be a college president, she said.
“He was reading the tea leaves about disruption and change in the academy, and he had always been a real student of branding and marketing and exploring new markets to keep institutions financially stable so that they could fulfill their mission,” she said. “He was always on top of his game with regard to what should come next in terms of academic programs.”
LeMura described DePerro as someone who saw the glass as half-full, even in times of stress. Those at Le Moyne are mourning his loss, she said. He’d built deep connections there.
“He had this particularly wonderful relationship with the Jesuit community,” she said. “They would embrace him and engage him as if he were a Jesuit himself. I can remember him being invited almost daily to spend time in the Jesuit community, over dinner, because of the warmth of his personality and his penchant for making people laugh.”
Zimmer does not know how DePerro contracted COVID-19. DePerro tested positive on Christmas Eve and was admitted to a hospital in Syracuse Dec. 29. The university announced his diagnosis and hospitalization Jan. 2, saying he’d contracted pneumonia because of the virus.
“I’ve started to feel better the last couple of days and can’t thank the hospital staff enough for the care I’ve received,” DePerro said in a statement at the time. “I have complete confidence in Dr. Zimmer and the university’s administration team as I work toward a full recovery. I look forward to being back on campus very soon.”
In the middle of January, he was placed on a ventilator.
The fact that his condition had become serious hasn’t made it any easier to hear of his death, LeMura said.
“We knew he was really sick,” she said. “But you know how it is. You just keep hoping he’ll pull out.”
Leaders at St. Bonaventure and in New York private higher education issued statements mourning the loss.
“His humanity, his insight, his ability to listen to all sides, his sense of humor — all of that made him a great leader,” said Tom Missel, chief communications officer at St. Bonaventure. “What I’ll miss more than anything was his uncanny ability to make you feel better even on your worst days. He had a unique gift. I loved that man with all my heart. I know there are thousands of people who would say the same thing.”
Drew Bogner, the interim president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, an association that lobbies for private nonprofit colleges in New York, issued a statement.
“On behalf of New York’s independent sector of higher education, we are heartbroken over the loss of such a vital and warm member of our community,” Bogner said. “Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and the many students, alumni and faculty of St. Bonaventure University, Le Moyne College and Canisius College whose lives he touched.”
The chair of St. Bonaventure’s Board of Trustees, John Sheehan, issued a statement as well.
“The immense grief we all feel extends beyond the campus community,” Sheehan said. “Our alumni adored Dennis, and the relationships he forged at every college he’s worked run deep, especially at Le Moyne, where I know his loss will be deeply felt. Please keep his wife, Sherry, their sons Andrew and Matthew, and the entire DePerro family in your prayers. The university will do everything it can to support them.”
Several other college and university presidents have died after contracting COVID-19. They include Mark Ivester, president of North Georgia Technical College, and David Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College, both of whom died in September. Irving McPhail, president of Saint Augustine’s University, died in October.
Former university presidents have died of COVID-19 as well, such as Stanford University’s former president, Donald Kennedy, who died last spring. The pandemic has also claimed staff and faculty members’ lives, as well as those of students at different institutions.
The news of DePerro’s death comes at a time when vaccine rollouts and declining numbers of new COVID-19 cases across the country have provided hope within and outside higher education that a return to normal might be on the horizon. Colleges and universities in different parts of the country have been announcing plans to ramp up in-person instruction come fall as the pandemic wanes.
But the pandemic has followed its own timelines, not those of higher education. Last fall, St. Bonaventure had planned to continue in-person operations until the week of Thanksgiving, as had many colleges. But it disbanded in-person classes for the semester on the Friday before the holiday because cases were mounting, Zimmer said.
With its president so ill, St. Bonaventure has prepared leadership contingency plans in the last few weeks, according to Zimmer. It has a strong plan for moving forward without disruption to operations, he said.
Still, he acknowledged that he’d personally felt some fear holding the role of acting president under the circumstances. His wife wants to put him in bubble wrap, he said.
As of Monday, the university’s COVID-19 tracker listed 40 positive cases since the start of the new year, with 11 currently active.
“This is a reminder that we are still in the midst of this,” Zimmer said.