Like the regulars they are, the Trani troop — five kids ranging in age from 3 to 14 and their driver, “Papa” Eugene Trani, head straight to their corner table at The Dairy Bar, where the younger children get down to business coloring the cow place mats before them.
As breakfast orders are being taken, cousins Olivia Trani, 10, and Woody Chapman, 10, swap details about being extras in a Civil War movie filming at the White House of the Confederacy last week.
Head down as he tries to color within the lines of the Dairy Bar cow, James Trani, 7, giggles when Papa tells the story of James’ first word as the family stepped onto Italian soil this summer: a “BON-JUR-NO” with bravura.
A chair away, a totally-in-charge Tegan Chapman — the one Papa has “loved the longest” — is helping her little cousins order and then does bathroom duty with Renn Trani, 3, who just joined the breakfast bunch last week after his successful completion of potty training.
After the eggs, pancakes, French toast and, yes, ice cream are downed, the elder Trani usually shows them the city that grandpa rebuilt. In her 14-going-on-40 voice, Tegan adds with exasperation, “If I’m the only one going, we go walking around for an hour and a HALF!”
Trani, in his 15th year as president of Virginia Commonwealth University, often tours VCU buildings in progress, grandkids in tow, before breakfast has settled. There’s a lot to see, including the recently completed $18 million Shafer Court Dining Hall and the $9.4 million Student Commons addition.
“Sometimes they roll their eyes — ‘Oh, no. Another trip,’ ” Trani says, “but I think they recognize that, to an extent, it goes with the territory.”
Trani’s “territory” is far-reaching. His vision for VCU has plowed about $690 million worth of new construction into the city, including about $82 million along Broad Street west of Belvidere Street.
Trani says he’ll retire when his contract expires in 2007, but his grand plan for the university and the VCU Health System will continue well beyond his tenure. Parts of that vision are already coming to fruition, such as changing the name of VCU’s academic campus in the Fan District to the Monroe Park Campus. Others are on the way, including plans for a new School of Business building as part of a 10.8-acre, nearly $199 million complex between Main and Canal streets just east of Belvidere that also will house a conferencing center, underground parking and an expanded School of Engineering.
To remind his staff and himself of his goals until 2007, he has given out two-sided, pocket-sized cards with his printed priorities. They include a collaboration with the College of William and Mary; a new children’s hospital in Richmond; a Northern Virginia campus devoted to health sciences; and a new Richmond-based School of Public Health, which will open in spring.
The process of updating VCU’s master plan, which details more than three-dozen projects the university would like to build or implement between now and 2020, highlights the public Trani — planner, driver, speech maker. As such, he is the most visible symbol and most outspoken booster of an increasingly impressive university and health system. The man at breakfast with his grandchildren is the private Trani. But with Trani, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to separate the private persona from the public.
Clara Lovett got to know VCU and Trani years ago, when she was provost at George Mason University between 1988 and 1993. Lovett, now president of the American Association for Higher Education, is familiar with VCU’s current reputation, too.
“I can tell you that a whole lot of people who never worked in Virginia have heard of VCU and have followed the growth of the university — particularly the effort that was made under Dr. Trani to develop the biosciences and biotechnology program,” Lovett says. “There’s no question that the university is better known and more highly regarded than it was 10 years ago.”
Trani has transformed VCU from a lesser-known, largely commuter school to a more residential university with a higher national profile. In the early 1990s, Trani partnered with the state and Richmond to create the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, which now works with VCU, businesses, nonprofits and other academic institutions to foster technology transfer and business development. Just last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked VCU’s graduate-level sculpture program as the nation’s best. And early last month, VCU announced a partnership with the University of Nebraska and five historically black colleges to increase health-related career options for minorities.
To raise VCU’s national profile even higher, VCU’s foundations loaned $2 million to pay for the school’s inclusion into a 2002 public television series on DNA. (Harvard and four other universities included didn’t pay.) A remaining loan balance of $800,000 will be paid back through private donations as was $1.2 million. VCU also plans to market high-school lesson plans that use the series.
The combined student population of VCU and its health system now numbers more than 26,000 students, with an additional 15,000 faculty and staff members. The joint system has a budget of $1.5 billion — a sum more than double the current $536 million budget for the city of Richmond. Trani’s annual compensation package totals about $400,000, partially from donors, plus a university-owned residence in the near West End and the use of a Buick Park Avenue.
Trani’s influence also stems from the fact that he got involved in the community soon after being hired as VCU president. He has served as chairman of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. He now chairs Richmond Renaissance, a group based on the premise that economic development will make Richmond a more vital city. (At a fall 2003 Renaissance event, during which at least 15 speakers were given a maximum of two minutes to detail their downtown projects, Trani kept going for about 10 minutes, despite a few half-hearted attempts by emcee Lucy Meade to speed up his remarks.) And he serves on CEOs for Cities with Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum and Jim Ukrop, chairman of both Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc. and First Market Bank. (The bottled water at Trani’s office, the VCU President’s House? Ukrop’s Natural Mountain Spring Water.)
In July, Style Weekly ranked Trani the seventh most powerful person in Richmond. Some say he should be No. 1.
“I’d put him at the top of the list,” says Ukrop, No. 3 on Style’s list. “There are people with more money who could do more things but, in my opinion, haven’t stepped forward to do it. Gene [Trani] could have just come in and been a nice, quiet college president, but he’s stepped up and taken on some of the biggest roles in town.”
Stepping up can also mean stepping on toes. VCU’s growth over the years has put it at odds with neighborhood advocates and preservationists, including those in the Fan and Oregon Hill.
Preservationist Jennie Dotts recently left the Aug. 12 VCU Board of Visitors meeting, at which the university’s master plan, VCU 2020, was approved, worried about the city’s landscape.
Dotts, executive director of the 5-year-old Alliance to Save Old Richmond Neighborhoods (ACORN), is particularly concerned about VCU’s plan to demolish three buildings on the old Medical College of Virginia campus: the 1941 West Hospital, the 1938 A.D. Williams Clinic and the 1928 School of Nursing building. The group organized last-minute walking tours of the buildings and summoned like-minded preservationists to protest the demolitions during the meeting.
Dotts wishes VCU would expand into underutilized areas of downtown rather than “destroy any additional historic fabric of the city.”
During the Aug. 12 board meeting, according to a Style Weekly account, Trani said nothing suitable exists nearby and that he wants to keep the teaching and medical components of the medical campus together.
Dotts counters: “We know the new medical school won’t work in [the West Hospital] building. However, it and the nursing school would lend themselves to adaptive reuse for a hotel with retail on the first floor and a restaurant or student housing or upscale apartments.
“And there are alternative sites downtown near the university: What about the site on which the city’s dilapidated public-safety building rests? Or the Children’s Pavilion parcel?”
Both sites were reviewed by VCU, says Pam Lepley, the university’s spokeswoman. The city has plans for the public safety building site and the Children’s Pavilion site was not large enough, she says.
On VCU’s Web site and in a letter to university alumni dated Sept. 3, Trani said VCU held “briefings on VCU 2020 with more than 50 groups” during the past year.
Lepley says the university didn’t get many requests for revisions in the plan because it has had continuing discussions with a variety of groups such as Fan and Oregon Hill civic association members. “For example, it has been an ongoing request that VCU [offer] more parking for students. The plan has 2,600 new deck spaces,” she says.
Dotts contends: “There were one-sided presentations of the master plan. That’s no substitute for public discourse on publicly owned properties and landmarks that belong to all of us.
“If [Dr. Trani] is going to be credited with VCU’s building boom, he should also be accountable for the quality of those buildings,” Dotts adds. “While VCU’s new buildings serve serious utilitarian needs, they are architecturally unremarkable in contrast to the buildings the university proposes to demolish …”
Joining the preservationist camp on Sept. 15 was Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum, who proposed a moratorium on tearing down public buildings, including VCU’s West Hospital.
“VCU’s plans for the medical center have been in the public domain over the past year, with specific presentations to city officials. It’s frustrating and disappointing that such concerns have been raised in this way,” Trani says. “This is all about continuing to modernize and keep a world-class medical center in downtown Richmond. We recognize the importance of preserving historic structures, and VCU has spent millions doing just that on both of its Richmond campuses. We looked at every way possible to renovate West Hospital to meet the needs of a modern academic health center and maintain its architectural historical integrity. It can’t be done, even spending huge amounts of money.”
Don’t think Trani isn’t well aware of his critics.
He recently spotted a stack of old documents and magazines while walking through the basement of his Franklin Street office. On top, a younger Trani with more hair graced the cover of a 1998 edition of Style Weekly.
“That’s when they actually thought of me as Richmonder of the Year,” he says, “and not as one of their jokes.”
At least three times last year, Trani was fodder for Style’s tongue-in-cheek regular feature “The Score.” One snarky item suggested that — as part of launching an African-American studies major at VCU — Trani “naturally, will need to build a new school, launch a fund-raising campaign and take over a block or two of downtown Richmond.”
Trani explains that he gets frustrated by media coverage he deems less than serious. “Clearly I want VCU portrayed in a serious way,” he says, “and whether it’s me individually or Virginia Commonwealth University, when you’re involved in the kinds of projects we’re involved in, I’m not just interested in humorous asides. I’m looking for serious analysis. I’m not much into sound bites.”
Cute and cuddly Eugene Trani is not. He’s the kind of guy who will correct you, not once, but twice, if you still say MCV, instead of VCU Medical Center.
“Gene tends to be hard-nosed, all business,” says Dr. W. Baxter Perkinson Jr., who served on VCU’s Board of Visitors from 1996 to 2004 and still serves on the VCU Health System’s authority. “I know how to present a softer side. His style is not as concerned about the way things come across. We’ve had talks that if we did it with sugar instead of vinegar, we might get further. If he respects you, he listens.
“So many people think he’s like Superman and that he’s inhuman. I find him to be very human, very sensitive. He can get his feelings hurt.”
Despite being in the news often, Trani somehow manages to keep his own ideology and politics under wraps.
“One of my proudest moments was when a member of the Virginia Senate said he heard I was running for governor,” Trani says. “I said, ‘That’s interesting, senator. On which ticket is it alleged I’m running?’ He said, ‘Nobody knows.’ I said, ‘Thank you, senator. That’s the ultimate compliment.’ ”
“He’s perhaps the most underrated politician in the state,” says current mayoral candidate and former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who counts Trani among his friends. Wilder, who works for Trani as a Distinguished Professor in VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, says Trani “has a political antenna in terms of recognizing that a nonpartisan stance is necessary to make sure the university is not affected by changing administrations. It’s an art form.”
Trani also has a fan in Councilman Bill Pantele, whose 2nd District includes VCU. Pantele credits Trani with always keeping his word. As an example, Pantele points to the community concern years ago about VCU’s Broad Street expansion and the construction of the Siegel Center. “At that time, to allay the fears of surrounding residents in Carver, Dr. Trani committed that VCU would not cross West Marshall Street uninvited by the residents,” Pantele says. “He put it in writing, he mailed it to the residents and he has remained steadfast to that commitment.”
Trani also is committed to expanding VCU’s presence and partners internationally. In addition to the VCU School of the Arts in Qatar that Trani already established, he is now building an exchange program between VCU and the University of Messina in Italy, a program that would stress life sciences, biotechnology and Mediterranean studies. “This is what major research institutions do,” Trani says. “It results in foreign faculty and students coming over. Virginia has lagged behind in that respect and, I believe, suffered for it.”
Trani travels frequently. Just this summer, he flew to Russia and China as part of Gov. Mark Warner’s trade mission, then returned to Moscow for a Fulbright reunion. (Trani served as a senior Fulbright lecturer in American history at Moscow State University in spring 1981.)
After the reunion, Trani enjoyed a two-week family vacation in Tuscany before heading to Messina with his wife for three days of work on the planned exchange program. It’s not unusual for Trani to mix business and pleasure in this way, and he doesn’t seem to mind the intrusion of public work into his private life.
“When you go to Tuscany, you’re going to relax,” he says. “I did have my Blackberry, so I could read my e-mails, even in the mountains of Tuscany. It was great. I came back invigorated.”
He finds time to write books on presidents and foreign affairs, too. He and co-author Donald Davis are working on a new book, China the Friend vs. Russia the Foe.
A friend since graduate school, Davis says Trani has “a punishing memory,” perfect for recalling names, foreign vocabulary and numbers. Davis attributes some of it to the baseball-statistic duels that Trani used to have with his father. Davis also says that Trani comes to any table “with 10 ideas compared with everybody else’s one. After you talk them through, he’s good at laser focusing on the one that will work.”
Even averaging five hours of sleep a night as Trani does, it’s still hard to imagine how he fits everything in. A typical day finds him having a business breakfast, a business lunch and a business dinner; meeting with university faculty and staff members; getting together with city or community leaders; and attending a work-related social event at night.
Wife of 42 years Lois Trani offers a reality check: He is known to fall asleep on the couch while watching sports on the weekends and “he’s getting not to like 7:30 a.m. breakfast meetings.”
Trani’s perpetual weekday motion was on full display the morning of June 18. He and dozens of other university and city officials were gathered in the latest addition to the VCU Student Commons to thank those who battled the devastating March 26 fire at a student apartment building near Carver. As attendees mingle and munch on finger food, Trani stands near the front of the conference room in a tan suit and burgundy-striped tie. No, wait, he’s gone. You didn’t see him move, but suddenly he’s talking to Councilman Pantele. Ten seconds later, he’s across the room again, shaking the hand of Richmond Police Chief Andre Parker. Is there more than one Trani?
“Can I have your attention, please?” Whoosh! Trani has been teleported to the podium.
This high-speed schmoozing isn’t exactly exercise, but Trani does watch his weight. He has no health problems, he says, but must be careful with so many work functions involving food. “I love to eat,” he says, “and there’s a lot of great food in front of me all the time.”
Trani also loves to golf, and he expects to spend more time on the links after he retires and moves into a home on Independence Golf Course in Powhatan County. “I’m a passionate golfer, but there’s a big difference between me and a good golfer,” says Trani, who’s happy when he breaks 100. “I just relax on golf courses.”
Aside from golfing Trani also sees retirement as a chance to write and to spend more time with his wife and their grandchildren. He is so intent on having a strong relationship with his grandkids, in part, because he never had one with his own grandparents. Likewise, Trani’s parents, now deceased, were always separated by geography from Trani’s two children.
“I have an opportunity now that I didn’t have as a child,” Trani says. He expresses a similar sentiment during a meeting with a delegation from the University of Messina, joking, “My father would come down from heaven if I didn’t pay attention to his birthplace.”
Trani’s work ethic, in part, stems from his father, who immigrated to the United States and then worked his way through Cornell University, earning a degree in civil engineering.
“Gene is from a very close Irish-Italian family,” longtime friend Davis explains. “The things that are important to him are family, friends and especially loyalty. He can size people up pretty quickly. He’s loyal and he expects the same. When it’s not shown, it hurts him deeply.”
Trani is too steeped in history, too aware of how legacies are made and shattered, not to think about generational obligations and global ties. He may be one of the most powerful people in Richmond, but he’s also a grandfather nearing retirement. But like his politics, he’s keeping thoughts on his legacy largely to himself.
“It’s important to me within moderation,” he says. “That’s not something I’m spending a lot of time thinking about. I’ve got an agenda and a lot of things I want to do. But a legacy? That’s for others to worry about. I’m just interested in moving VCU forward.”
Maybe Trani really doesn’t care how history looks upon his legacy at VCU and his impact on Richmond. Maybe the thrill is in the building, and the rush is in the now. As he says when discussing Saturday breakfasts with his grandchildren, “I don’t know if they’re going to remember it, but it’s great fun for me.”
Susan Winiecki contributed to this story.