DALLAS – When College Misericordia students returned for the second semester of the 1985-86 school year, they were greeted by clear signs of change.
Billboards in the Back Mountain let them know “Paw Power” was coming. Decorative paw prints adorned the campus. Signs urged students to come out to the Jan. 17, 1986 men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader at Keuka College to meet the mascot.
When they visit three decades later as alumni, the Misericordia students of the 1980s again see many changes. Misericordia University is the new name. The enrollment has expanded from less than 1,000 to more than 3,000. The athletic program has ballooned from six teams to 23, playing at drastically different facilities and becoming a thriving Division III (non-athletic scholarship) member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Maria Pallante, who has served as the director of the United States Copyright Office within the Library of Congress since 2011, is one of those Misericordia graduates. Pallante sees a connection between the short-term changes then and the long-term changes in what is now a larger campus and institution.
“I really feel like it was the beginning of what became a major transformation,” said Pallante, who was in the middle of a student-led campaign to change the nickname from Highlanders.
That change honored in a 30th anniversary celebration at the university Saturday.
Pallante, a 1986 graduate, credits a multi-year effort among many student leaders from her class as well as the classes a year ahead and behind.
As editor of the school newspaper, Pallante had written editorials about the subject during her junior year. A member of Misericordia’s field hockey team, she remained interested in the issue a year later as student government president.
“After we spent about a year writing editorials in the school newspaper, which had only recently been revived, it kind of spurred this focus on the campus where the faculty was writing letters, the students were writing letters, the Sisters of Mercy were writing letters,” Pallante said.
Some of the letters were playful or funny. Others took the matter quite seriously.
“The sisters would write in and say, ‘no, the Highlanders means something to the Order of the Sisters of Mercy and we need to be very careful about this,’” Pallente said. “The student-athletes wanted something like Cardinals or Cougars that allowed for a better mascot.”
According to Pallante’s recollection, Dr. Joseph Fink, then college president, was supportive of the discussions; Msgr. John Bendik, the chaplain and advisor to the student government, encouraged students to feel a part of running their own school; and Professor Stevan Davies had helped in that process by overseeing the return of the student newspaper.
“Martha Hanlon was key to this effort,” Pallante said. “She was in a tough spot. She was the dean of students and the students wanted to change the name. She was also a Sister of Mercy and the Sisters of Mercy did not want to change the name.
“She really became a key diplomat in this entire thing and we leaned on her very heavily.”
The issue did not go away and Hanlon agreed to accept suggested possible nicknames from the students with the Sisters to make the final selection.
Pallante, who received a degree in history and pre-law from Misericordia, before going on to law school at George Washington University and a career as an intellectual property lawyer, wrote a formal request to Fink in the fall of 1985 to request a resolution of the matter following polls to determine that Cougars was the preferred choice of students and faculty.
On the night the Cougar was introduced, Fink, Hanlon and Bendik were part of the festivities, including participating in a Faculty vs. Students Foul Shooting Contest. Michael Daley, a Dallas High School student and son of then-Misericordia Publicity Director Judy Daley, was the first to wear the Cougar costume.
When it was over, Pallante said the students had reason to feel more like it was their college, possibly contributing to the school pride that has helped encourage growth to this day. One of three sisters from Westville, New Jersey, to attend Misericordia, Pallante’s connection to the school will continue in the fall when her niece, Madison Keegan from Mount Olive, New Jersey, enrolls and joins the field hockey program.
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