Under John Yena's leadership, Gaebe Commons was built in response to the city’s need for a vibrant center, and community service became a part of a Johnson & Wales University education. Together the two connected an urban core to a common heart. Beyond all else, Yena’s belief in students and community marks his tenure as university president and presence at JWU for 45 years.
Recruited by Morris Gaebe, the West Warwick, RI native came to Johnson & Wales in 1962 to teach economics. In his rise to current day chairman of the board, he passed through roles as coach, director of student activities and athletics, dean of the college, vice president of the college and university president.A product of “a blue-collar mill town,” he admits to being ready to drop out of college before a professor took an interest in his talents and gave him a direction.
From that working-class perspective, he brought an inherent understanding of the typical Johnson & Wales student. Along with Edward Triangolo and Morris Gaebe, Yena helped shape the university’s educational growth from junior college and college to university. When Yena took the helm as university president, JWU was housed in scattered buildings around Providence. A presentation to city planners by renowned urban architect, Andrés Duany, offered a vision for a downcity rebirth and a broadened sense of community. Yena, excitement sparked, saw Johnson & Wales at its center. He championed the purchase of land on Weybosset Street left vacant when the once-grand Outlet store was gutted by fire. Duany was hired to draw plans for the university’s growth. Today Gaebe Commons and surrounding buildings are part of what Yena calls “a protected little enclave where our students can withdraw and still be part of the urban fabric and the green space of the city.”
If a presence at the city center marked the university’s urban core, it is community service that defined its reach. Yena credits philanthropist, Alan Shawn Feinstein ’94 Hon., with reshaping his perspective. Feinstein argued that volunteer community service should be mandatory; Yena found the concept “an oxymoron.” But with ensuing discussions, “I came to believe that you need to create situations and circumstances in the curriculum that provide opportunities for students to see the value of the broader perspective — the community perspective of life,” Yena says.
“Instead of just preparing themselves for their career, preparing them to do good as well.” What he mandated affected his own life. It led to revelations of “going beyond the responsibilities of leading Johnson & Wales and thinking about the greater responsibility that it has to the community.”
Directed by his leadership, community service at all campuses targets hunger, homelessness and education. “I am unalterably convinced that students who have graduated from Johnson & Wales since we’ve had community service learning have received a much better education. It practically inculcates clearly into the academic experience that they have a responsibility that goes beyond their own economic welfare,” he says.
Colleagues describe Yena as approachable, visionary, loyal, steadfast and fair — an inspiring and exceptional leader. “People like the opportunity to put some of themselves into the job. That’s what I’m most proud of — that the individual within the constraints of core values, can make a difference here,” says Yena, now JWU chairman of the board. With two children, four grandchildren and wife, Donna, vice president of JWU Career Development, sharing his life, Yena admits he’s energized by what lies ahead. “I guarantee I will continue to have fun. I would not subtract my 45 years at this place for anything.”
He serves on a long list of educational, financial and nonprofit boards including ITT Educational Services, Potomac College, BankRI and Kent County Hospital. In 1998, he was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity for the US Department of Education. Service carries immeasurable rewards, he says. “It’s not just a do-gooder sort of attitude. You enrich yourself. You enrich the institution. It’s not a one-way street.”
There’s no doubt a very broad thoroughfare has been paved by Yena’s years at JWU.