Mercyhurst mourns passing of 10th president, Michael J. McQuillen

Michael McQuillenThe college community mourns the passing of Dr. Michael John McQuillen, the 10th president of Mercyhurst University, an esteemed professor of History, valued leader, and beloved colleague. He was 79.

McQuillen and his wife, Joy, had been living in Tasmania, Australia, for the past two years, enjoying the company of their two sons, David and Daniel, and their grandchildren. Prior to that, they lived in Fort Collins, Colorado, where their daughter, Carolyn, and her family reside.

Although there is not a formal obituary, Carolyn said her father died Nov. 1 in Australia and shared news of his passing in a Facebook post:

“In March, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer (glioblastoma). Recently, we thought he had been doing great, MRI was clear—maybe another year to go! Then, a sudden change just 3 1/2 weeks ago … The tumor had returned, and he was given two weeks to live. He stayed active, taking daily walks with mom along Port Cygnet up until the day before he went into hospice. You wouldn’t know he was sick to look at him. Words were harder to speak and understand because of the changes, although that did not defeat him. He was more in awe of how ‘strange’ it was. He’d wave a hand across his face to signify that it felt ‘empty.’ He did not have pain, for that we are so grateful. He always seemed peaceful with his fate.”

Survivors include his wife, Joy McQuillen '95, sons, David McQuillen '94 (wife Claire) and Daniel McQuillen ’95 (wife Jamyang), all of Tasmania; a daughter, Carolyn Meyer ’97 (husband Sascha) of Fort Collins; and grandchildren Isla, Henry, Archie, Dorje and Machik, all of Tasmania, and Roan of Fort Collins.

Born in Buffalo, New York, on June 24, 1944, McQuillen attended Canisius College on a full scholarship, where he earned his undergraduate degree and, later, a doctorate in history at the University of Virginia, again on full scholarship. He authored several books, among them “A Legacy of Love: A History of the Gertrude Barber Center,” “Eriez Magnetics: From Pioneer to World Leader,” and “The Best-Known Name in Paper: Hammermill.”

He also wrote “The History of Mercyhurst: Early 20s to Mid-50s” as part of the college’s 75th anniversary observance.

“I could list all of his awards and accomplishments, but that’s not necessary, because that’s not what he identified with,” his daughter wrote. “His most important identity was as a loving, often goofy, husband, father, grandfather, and friend.”  

McQuillen began his Mercyhurst career in 1971 as a faculty member in the History Department, spending the next 35 years as a professor, associate academic dean, dean of libraries, and academic dean. From 2005-2006, between the retirement of Dr. William Garvey and the presidency of Dr. Thomas Gamble, McQuillen served as interim president and was subsequently honored as the 10th president of Mercyhurst.

As a teacher and recipient of Mercyhurst’s Teaching Excellence Award, McQuillen was praised by his students for his engaging teaching style, focus on key trends and events, and his fair, honest, and supportive nature.

Under McQuillen's presidency, Mercyhurst excelled, as he provided exceptional leadership during a challenging period for the college. His primary goal was to refocus the college on the future and maintain its primary mission of providing a quality education.

In retirement, he followed his daughter to Fort Collins, where he remained for almost 20 years. While there, he taught courses at Colorado State University, became an avid hiker, and developed a number of close friendships. He spent the last two years living in Australia.

Mercyhurst Remembers “Mike”

Dr. Joanne Hosey-McGurk, vice president for Academic Affairs: “Mike McQuillen was ‘The Dean,’ as the role of vice president for Academic Affairs was called when I first joined Mercyhurst. He was unfailingly kind and supportive of faculty and staff. I remember times coming into my office in the morning to find under my door a copy of an article that Mike thought would be interesting or useful to me. He cared about people; he encouraged innovation and showed many of us newer faculty how to make the most of the entrepreneurial legacy of the Sisters of Mercy. When he, after several years, left the Dean’s Office, he returned to the faculty as a History professor of genuine gravitas and dignitas. As president, he provided the leadership to place our beloved Mercyhurst on a solid path in the new millennium. He embodied so many of the attributes that made and make Mercyhurst a special place.”

Dr. Chris Magoc, professor of History: “Michael McQuillen holds a special place in the hearts of many of us who were privileged to know him as a colleague. His thoughtfulness and graciousness were expressed in many ways—not least by his habit of dropping by to ask how you were, how your family was, or to give you an article or a book review he thought you would be interested in because he knew of your scholarly interests. Mike was a gifted teacher-scholar who earned universal respect at Mercyhurst for his integrity and through his leadership of the History Department, the library, and ultimately the college as president in a time of institutional crisis. In 2005, the History Department was proud to establish our highest student award for academic excellence in his name.” 

Dr. Mary Hembrow Snyder, retired professor of Religious Studies: “As teacher and administrator, no matter what position Mike held, he gave his all: to his students, to faculty, to members of the Board of Trustees and to the Sisters of Mercy. He was a friend and mentor to many of us and we learned a great deal from his servant-leadership and his fierce commitment to the Mission of Mercyhurst. His generous spirit, trustworthiness, and honesty were some of the many gifts he embodied within our Mercyhurst community. We could not have asked for a finer colleague than Mike McQuillen.”

Jodi Staniunas Hopper, dean, School of the Arts: “Mike was my next-door neighbor growing up. He was a kind and humble person. When I started at Mercyhurst he was still in the History Department. I remember the day they announced him as president. He invited his wife, Joy, on the stage with him. They held hands and bowed to the applause. Not one for big show or flash, Mike was just a hard worker who cared very much for this university.”

Dr. Roy Strausbaugh, dean emeritus: “Michael ‘Mike’ McQuillen served Mercyhurst as an exceptional scholar, teacher, and leader in academic affairs. Mike was a quiet man, but a man with humor. With a PhD in history from the University of Virginia and an effective manner in the classroom, he  would have been remembered as an master teacher. But he did more—he served as the dean of the college providing effective leadership as the school emerged from difficult times into a flourishing institution.  And he served as interim president (later being named president). Not surprisingly, he was a man of great integrity and compassion. He should be so remembered.”

Mary Daly, board professional emeritus: “I remember, as a young PR director, writing the release when Mike joined the Mercyhurst faculty. That's how far he, Joy and I go back!  I always had great admiration for Mike's talents and genuine goodness and kindness. He was as comfortable in the classroom, later as a top administrator and finally as president, as he was sitting at the corner table in the faculty dining room, playing cards over the lunch hour with his hardcore knights of the round table. He was as grounded as they come. … Little known to most today, Mike was commissioned to research and write the history of Mercyhurst as part of the 75th anniversary of the college. It is an absolutely brilliant piece of work, a treasure in the archives for generations to come, and his lasting legacy to Mercyhurst. I also remember when he was hand-picked by the chair of the Board of Trustees to fill the presidency of Mercyhurst. Those of us close to the inner workings thought it was a long shot that he and Joy would come out of retirement to help settle the college when it had been shaken to its core. But Mike loved Mercyhurst, and he saw it this time, not so much as a challenge but a calling to help right the ship that held so many fond memories for him and his family. … Hard as it is to come to terms with his death, it gives us time to reflect on the man, his mighty contributions and leadership at Mercyhurst, to express gratitude for the legacy he left us and for allowing us to be a cog in his wheel. No doubt about it, Mike McQuillen was one of Mercyhurst's finest.”

The family shared some of their favorite memories of Mike in this video.

Anyone wishing to extend their condolences to the family can reach out to Carolyn at