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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Nashua Adult Learning Center chief retiring after 27 years at helm

After teaching adult basic education and directing different programs for nearly a decade under Dotty Oliver, the late, beloved founder and longtime director of the Adult Learning Center, Mary Jordan came this close to giving up the nonprofit arena for the public school system.

On a warm spring day last month, Jordan sat in her office at the Lake Street building that old-timers remember as James B. Crowley Elementary School and recalled fondly the day she changed her mind – and the man whose suggestion set her decision to stay put in motion. ...

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After teaching adult basic education and directing different programs for nearly a decade under Dotty Oliver, the late, beloved founder and longtime director of the Adult Learning Center, Mary Jordan came this close to giving up the nonprofit arena for the public school system.

On a warm spring day last month, Jordan sat in her office at the Lake Street building that old-timers remember as James B. Crowley Elementary School and recalled fondly the day she changed her mind – and the man whose suggestion set her decision to stay put in motion.

John Cepaitis, a retired Nashua superintendent of schools who was on the ALC board at the time, thought Jordan would be ideal for the directorship of the agency, and told her so.

“John asked me if I’d be interested, and they offered me the position,” Jordan said. “The building needed a lot of work at the time, and they felt it would take someone already invested (in the agency) to do all that.”

So Jordan stayed on, adding what turned out to be 27 more years to her association with the ever-growing, successful center whose staff has guided countless thousands of people, from local natives to newly arrived immigrants from around the world, to better, smarter, more productive and fulfilling lives over more than four decades.

As all good things must, Jordan’s stint at the helm is coming to an end this month, and if anyone thought for a minute her associates, friends and family members would let her ride off quietly into the world of retirement, they never met those who know and love Mary Jordan.

“Mary is a humble, quiet soul who doesn’t like a lot of attention, doesn’t want a lot of fanfare,” Carol Kreick, president of the ALC board and a longtime friend, told close to 200 people who gathered recently at Sky Meadow Country Club for Jordan’s retirement reception.

“But you just can’t spend all these years in a leadership role like Mary’s and have people just say, ‘So long and thanks for the memories.’ ”

Jordan, who will be succeeded by Carol Baldwin, a human-resources professional and former ALC board member, handled all of the attention well for someone who’d rather be toiling behind the scenes or mingling with her staff and students.

Several family members, including her brother and sister-in-law Richard and Betty Hurley and a niece from her native Minnesota, filled two or three tables at the reception.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau brought laughs when she began reading the requisite mayoral proclamation dedicated to Jordan.

“Whereas, Mary Jordan was born on Nov. 12, 19-umumum,” Lozeau said, apparently keeping a vow not to release Jordan’s age.

“You’ve touched a lot of lives,” Lozeau said later on. “Our community is a better place because of you.”

State Sen. Betty Lasky, of Nashua, told the group that Jordan played a role in launching her career.

“Mary is probably the reason I got into politics,” Lasky said, recalling the days when she was a neighbor of Jordan’s and her late husband, Ted Jordan, who died in 2002.

One night, the Jordans invited Lasky and her husband, Elliot, over to meet a prospective presidential candidate; that candidate turned out to be Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

ALC staff member Marianne Wiley said Jordan never took her focus off advocating for her staff as much as she did for the center’s clientele.

“She was compassion without patronization,” Wiley said. “She simply raises the bar for all of us.”

Another staffer, Diana Owen, used numbers to illustrate Jordan’s impact.

“Mary led the center through the administrations of seven governors, six mayors and five school superintendents,” Owen said, saving the best number for last.

“Mary has impacted the lives of approximately 80,000 people,” she said to a round of applause.

Former ALC student Molly Little, who credited the center staff for inspiring her to get her high school diploma and to go on to earn a master’s degree, said her conversations with Jordan were special.

“They left me feeling like I could go out and conquer the world,” Little told the group. “Mary believed in others even when we didn’t believe in ourselves.”

Jordan’s daughter Meghan van Vliet, before publicly thanking her mom for “being there” through her children’s and grandchildren’s lives, brought a hearty laugh from attendees.

“When she told me she was retiring, I said, ‘Mom, you’d better get some hobbies or you’ll end up in front of the TV, watching cooking shows and drinking wine,” van Vliet joked.

The Adult Learning Center was on Burke Street, and still an experiment in progress, when Jordan signed on as an adult basic education teacher in 1977. She and Oliver developed a mutual respect and association that endures today.

Several years after the building’s days as an elementary school ended, the city deeded it to the center. That was in 1987, and Jordan says there was lots of work to be done.

Newly installed as executive director, Jordan launched a fundraising drive in 1989; its success was the shot in the arm the building, as well as the center’s mission, needed.

Once Jordan, the board and countless donors came together to shore up and spruce up the old school built in 1924, it was off to the races. More staff was hired as new programs were added, and more and more local folks were coming in to sign up for classes.

“When I became director, I think the staff was about 12-15 people,” Jordan said, breaking a smile. “Now it’s 100-plus.”

Likewise, the budget grew, from a comparatively measly $400,000 in 1987 to upward of $5 million today.

But of all the then-and-now comparisons, Jordan’s favorite, the one she’s most proud of, is the one under the “enrollment” column.

“We had about 100 students in ’87,” she said. “Now, including all of our programs, we see about 3,000 each year.”

Her next sentence was full of praise for the ALC staff: “Everyone is involved in every program in some fashion. That makes us very, very strong.”

The hardest part of her directorship?

“Funding is always the concern in the nonprofit world,” Jordan said, adding that the staff and students alike not only get involved in fundraisers, many students are also de facto ALC “lobbyists,” volunteering to go to Concord to put a face on the funding battles when state legislators start talking funding cuts.

“They’ve made a huge difference,” Jordan said. “They’re our best advocates.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Shalhoup on Twitter
(@Telegraph_DeanS).