Leading by listening

This Side Up


The voice message from Edna O’Neill Matteson was brief.

“I thought you would want to know, Edward Liston has died.”

I have known Edna, director of facilities at the Community College of Rhode Island, as long as I have known Ed. The two shared a love for the institution and its mission to provide access to higher education.

Ed was the ideal president for the college at the ideal time.

He followed the footsteps of the college’s first president, William Flanagan, a tough job for anyone. Ed was gifted at not offending those who wanted to cling to the ways of the past while moving forward with what he saw as the college of the future.

He brought in new people and new ideas and was skilled in bringing all the stakeholders to the table and coming away with a consensus.

In reading his obituary in Thursday’s Providence Journal, I was reminded of how he changed the name of the college from Rhode Island Junior College (RIJC), the initials of which earned the homophonic nickname, “reject.”

No question, the negative connotation hurt the institution and belied its place as a vital link in the state’s educational system. “Junior” had to be another reason, as no one wants to be labeled as attending a junior institution.

I suspect the bigger reason for the change was to include the word “community.” Community reflects the role Ed saw for the college. This was a proactive, not a reactive, change that is also reflective of what Ed was all about. He was about building, not maintaining the status quo, or worse, tearing things down.

Ed was named college president in 1978, coming from California where he was president of Los Angeles Pierce College. He retired and soon after that moved to Maine with his wife, Judith.

I met Ed soon after he took command and had the opportunity of reporting on his career. But he had another role for me, as I soon learned.

He created the college board of trustees and asked that I serve on it. The principal role of the group is to raise funds for the college and to serve as its ambassador. I was flattered, although I wondered what influence I might be able to exert in coming up with significant donations. I soon learned his objective was to sink roots into the community and raise the college’s visibility. The dollars were important but they weren’t the primary objective. It was a good course.

Rosemary Zins was the college liaison to the board and it wasn’t too long before members were involved in a number of activities; from golf tournaments, to a two-day Rhode Island bike ride to benefit college scholarships and other endeavors.

Ed grew the college. He laid the groundwork with the addition of the Lincoln campus named for Flanagan, the Providence campus that was named in Liston’s honor and the Newport Campus for the largest community college in New England.

Ed was good at encouraging people to reach for goals they may have never considered, or thought beyond their grasp. It happened to me when he called out of the blue and asked if I would think of serving on the Board of Governors for Higher Education. I had little idea what this might entail and I initially rejected the suggestion. On a follow-up call, he said he thought I would fairly represent college interests and eased concerns that a member of the media could be an impediment. Some weeks later, Governor Almond asked to meet with me. It was Ed’s doing.

Not his doing was being selected as Rhode Island’s Irish-American Man of the Year in 2000. As the son of Irish immigrants, this was an important honor to him as I heard from Dr. Paul McKenney who played a major role. He was thrilled with the designation and mentioned it on more than one occasion.

“He loved Ireland and everything Irish,” Edna said.

I imagine he wished his parents had known of the honor.

Ed’s unassuming manner made it easy to talk with him. He led by listening, not commanding. He downplayed his role.

I recall, at a college trustee meeting, him saying that students had no idea who was president of the college. That was hard to believe. He often mingled with the students and made certain that a student was a member of the board of trustees.

I decided to put it to the test and, prior to the following month’s meeting, I asked students in a random survey.

Ed wasn’t as invisible as he imagined. They knew who he was.

Even then, he was building a personal legacy, although that was not his goal. As he sometimes said of himself, “Someone has to carry the coal.”


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