At first glance
Exclusive look into the humble beginnings of President Haas
No doubt many Grand Valley State University students have heard or uttered the phrase “T. Haas”
When Thomas J. Haas, GVSU’s president, first heard the nickname years ago, he said it was humbling
and that it shows a connection among the university community.
“And now faculty and staff are calling me T. Haas, people in the community and the mayor were
calling me T. Haas the other day,” he said, chuckling. “Marcia’s calling me T. Haas—I’m even getting it
from my kids now.”
Before “T. Haas” and coming to GVSU, he was the president and provost of other colleges around the
states. Prior to that, he retired from the Coast Guard as a captain—the equivalent of a full colonel in
the Air Force or Army—after 23 years of commissioned service.
But before all of that, he was just Tom Haas, a kid who grew up in New York City’s Staten Island.
“Some people have a New York accent, but he is a Midwesterner,” said Haas’ wife, Marcia. “He just
happened to be born in New York.”
Neither of his parents graduated from high school. His father earned a GED, which allowed him to
work as a patrolman for the NYPD, and his mother—the daughter of two Polish immigrants—became a
“We were a family of modest means,” Haas said. “So I had to seek ways to try to help fund my
During World War II, his father served in the Navy as a cook in the Pacific Theater.
“I aspired to join, or really follow my dad’s footsteps,” he said. “I was very pleased to look at some
options from my high school days, and I was either hoping to go to the Naval Academy or do a Navy
However, to get accepted in the U.S. Naval Academy, an applicant must be nominated by a prominent
“Father Gannon at my high school, who was my counselor, suggested that maybe I look at the Coast
Guard Academy because it was an academy that did not need a congressional appointment,” Haas
said. “You could get in on your own merits.”
So he joined the academy in 1969 after getting in on his own. Growing up, Haas had to work for what
he got, which he understands is something many students still face today.
Being the first-generation of his family to attend higher education, Haas has no doubt that his
upbringing plays a part in his mission to keep college costs low for students.
“It’s important to me because I can see myself in many of the students that we attract here, and
knowing that their families need to have the pathways that we can afford them to get them through to
achieve their goal,” he said.
According to GVSU’s Institutional Analysis, 43.1 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in the fall 2013
semester are first-generation students.
“It’s scary for the first-generation students, and their moms and dads, and interacting with the
financial aid—and these moms and dads never were involved in that,” Haas said. “So we have to make
sure that we create the trust that’s necessary, and the pathways to get there.”
While college affordability is one of Haas’ main missions, another is accessibility. In addition to the
Pew Campus of downtown Grand Rapids, GVSU has regional campuses including Traverse City—a
special place for Haas.
“When I was in between my freshman and sophomore years (at the academy), I was stationed on the
Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw here in the Great Lakes,” Haas said. “And at that time we were to stop in
Traverse City, Mich., for the Cherry Festival.”
DECISIONS OR DESTINY?
Marcia was a former beauty queen. She won Miss Branch County in 1970, the year she graduated from
Union City High School.
“My history teacher talked me into trying out for that, and I did everything my history teacher told
me,” Marcia said. “I loved her in high school.”
After winning the Miss Branch crown, Marcia’s next step should have been competing in the Miss
Michigan pageant, but fate stepped in.
“Usually with that kind of thing—it’s part of the Miss America pageant—you go directly to your next
competition, which is Miss Michigan,” Marcia said. “(But) they said let’s hold it another year and give
the queen another opportunity to be part of that. So they sent me up to Traverse City, which was out
of the norm.”
Her first trip to Traverse City was a preliminary round where Marcia was selected to be part of the
National Cherry Festival court. Two weeks later, in early July, she went back up north for the festival.
“That second trip up there was when I met Tom,” she said. “He was coming off of the Mackinaw in his
whites and I was in my little cherry-dotted Swiss outfit. It was really picturesque.”
The night before, the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw came to port while Haas was on duty, so he had to
stay on the ship. His commanding officers came along looking for volunteers.
“They said, ‘would you be an escort for one of the Cherry Festival queens?’” Marcia said. “And he said,
‘Sure, what’s involved with it?’”
Free pizza, they replied.
“Free pizza,” Marcia said. “Okay, you know, for an 18-year-old boy that’s all right, (but) I thought it
was pretty neat that they asked him to do something, and he said yes. That meant that he was willing
to serve. He wanted to be with other people. He was all about expanding his horizons.”
Later that night, Haas’ friends came back to the ship with plans to go golfing the next day. He went
golfing for a while but decided to leave early so he could make it back on time to escort Marcia.
“Forty years later, we finished off that 18 holes when it was the 25th anniversary of Grand Valley’s
presence in Traverse City,” Marcia said.
T. HAAS’ ESCORT SERVICE
Every school in Traverse City sent a first-grade boy and girl to act as princes and princesses of the
“They were just the cutest little kids,” Marcia said.
The first-graders were dressed in little red velvet outfits and stood along the walkway the queen’s
court and their escorts were headed down.
“Well, Tom got down on his knee and talked to each one of them,” Marcia said. “When I saw him do
that I was pretty, like, ‘wow, he’s cool.’ And he still does that. He loves to hear what children are
thinking and saying.”
Being an administrator, teacher or someone else in the educational field is really about being a
mentor, Haas said.
“Every student has their own story,” he said. “I love hearing it, and I love being a part of it, too.”
Marcia was going to go to school to be a first-grade teacher, and from the moment she saw Haas
talking with the little princes and princesses, she thought there might be something special between
“I was a bit of a flirt,” Marcia said, laughing. “I kept stealing his cap, and he was kind of shy about it. I
didn’t know what that meant, but as the story goes, it means that he’s supposed to kiss the girl that
takes it off of his head.”
Haas’ Coast Guard buddies egged him on, urging him to pucker up.
“They were making a joke about it, and I just kept stealing it,” Marcia said. “I thought it was cute, but I
didn’t know why they thought it was so much fun—‘course he didn’t kiss me. We had chaperones all
over us. It took a little while for that to happen.”
That whole summer following the festival, Marcia was back home in Union City before heading to
Albion College, hundreds of miles from Traverse City.
The distance didn’t hinder their budding relationship, though. They were able to visit each other once
in a while, but they relied mostly on letters they wrote each other. And Marcia has held on to them all
“It’s true love,” she said. “We’re very blessed.”
In 1974, following Haas’ graduation from the Coast Guard Academy, the two were married.
“I tell people that I’ve been escorting her now for 44 years,” he said. “We’re going to celebrate our
40th wedding anniversary come January. It’s great when you can be married to your best friend, and
we’ve had a wonderful life adventure ever since.”