Seeing the Future: Robert Morris University Seeing the Future | Robert Morris University



“Chief flunkie” is how Jack McCartan drolly describes his role at the Robert Morris School of Business. Records show his actual title was vice president, which is far more fitting for the man who was as important as any in shaping the future of Robert Morris University.

His father, J.R. McCartan Sr., had purchased the for-profit accounting and secretarial school in 1948. The elder McCartan also owned a public accounting firm in Pittsburgh, and he did not oversee day-to-day operations at Robert Morris. So Jack McCartan went to work for his father in 1956, not long after graduating from Notre Dame. He wasn’t yet 30 when, under his leadership, the school purchased the Oliver Kaufmann estate in Moon Township in order to build a suburban residential campus.

“He was a visionary. He could see the future,” says alumnus and former registrar John Zebroski, 91, who worked at Robert Morris from 1945 until 1985.

When McCartan came to work for his father, Robert Morris catered almost exclusively to adult students. The way the son saw it, the school needed to expand its customer base. No other local business school was recruiting high school students, so that’s where he decided to find a niche. For recruiters, McCartan hired several IBM typewriter salesmen. “They started going out and visiting high schools, and enrollment just zoomed,” says McCartan.

The challenge was where to teach all these new students. Robert Morris offered accounting classes at the Times Building on Fourth Avenue and its secretarial program at the William Penn Hotel. In 1959, the school also had snatched up the Rust Engineering Building on Fifth Avenue, which later became known as the Pittsburgh Center. But what they really wanted, McCartan said, was a residential campus.

Shopping for land to build a residential campus, McCartan was drawn to Moon Township. It was on the western edge of Allegheny County, and Robert Morris wanted to draw students from Ohio. The Parkway West and Greater Pittsburgh Airport both had just opened, and Moon was poised for growth. (Indeed, the township population has doubled during the nearly 40 years that RMU has called it home.)

Kaufmann wanted $650,000 for his 230-acre estate, far more than the school could afford. But he agreed to accept virtually nothing up front and allowed the school to pay him the balance over the next several years. The first group of residential students lived in the Kaufmann mansion, where Massey Hall now sits.

Soon after the move to Moon, Pennsylvania changed its certification rules for accountants; candidates for the CPA exam now would need a college degree. In order to keep serving its students, Robert Morris had to become a junior college, which meant seeking nonprofit status. The McCartans formally severed ties in 1966 to seek out other business opportunities. Jack McCartan went on to operate other proprietary schools, including the Pittsburgh Technical Institute, which he rescued from bankruptcy, as well as Robert Morris University-Illinois, which was briefly affiliated with its Pittsburgh namesake and today is a nonprofit school. Meanwhile, Robert Morris eventually became a college, and in 2002, a university. In October RMU sold the Pittsburgh Center, completing its transition from local business school to regional comprehensive university.

McCartan has nothing but praise for the three men who succeeded his father as president — the late Charles SewallEdward Nicholson, and current President Gregory Dell’Omo — each of whom has left an indelible mark on the university. “Robert Morris has been fortunate that we’ve had good people at the helm,” says McCartan. “When you look back on the evolution in terms of program offerings, it’s been slow, steady growth, which is the way to do it — with a consistent focus on quality.”


Classmates for Life


This Christmas, Edith Bryen ‘43 kept up a nearly 70-year tradition: She exchanged Christmas cards with her friends from the Robert Morris School of Business secretarial studies program.

Classes were held in the William Penn Hotel, and the bustle of downtown Pittsburgh helped the young women to cement their friendships. “The places to eat were so crowded, so I started carrying my lunch. So did some of the other girls,” says Bryen, a lifelong Duquesne resident. “There were four girls I used to eat lunch with all the time. I started writing to them at Christmas, and we’ve done it lo these many long years.”

Bryen’s classmate-correspondents include Dorothy Hall McWilliams’43 and Ruth Barney ‘43. Other classmates, including twin sisters Elsie McKee ‘43 and Dorothy Kiehl ‘43, have passed away.

Barney, now of Peters Township, commuted from Burgettstown, a community 30 miles west of Pittsburgh that was a busy commuter rail hub. “I sometimes came running, but I always made it on time,” she recalls. Bryen and McWilliams rode the rails along the Monongahela River to the B&O terminal on Smithfield Street. “The trains were so dirty: the seats, the windows,” said McWilliams, now of Murrysville. “Riding on them, it was hard to keep clean.”

On occasion, the friends would splurge on a hot lunch at the Tic Toc Restaurant in Kaufmann’s department store. They have plenty of memories from their year. Robert Morris offered swimming classes in the hotel pool, but students were barred from using the elevators. “Those were for paying guests only,” Bryen recalls. Still, protocol couldn’t keep the students from star-gazing as the William Penn played host to famous musicians and matinee idols. “We got word that Frank Sinatra was going to be there,” McWilliams recalls. “We were hunting for him. I remember a few of us running up a stairway to see him. It was from a distance, but we caught a glimpse of him.”

As graduates, the women found a robust job market. Barney became a secretary at Weirton Steel in West Virginia. Bryen was contacted about office jobs downtown, but opted instead for the steel works back home. “In the mill, I could get better pay, and had no transportation costs or commute,” she says. “I could go home for lunch.”

McWilliams worked for lawyers downtown for a few years before wearying of the commute and taking a job at Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh facility. There she met her future husband. Once they wed, her career at Westinghouse was over. “Married women weren’t allowed to work. It was a rule,” McWilliams recalls. “Some women kept it a secret and kept working. But since everyone at work knew my husband, I was laid off. We didn’t think anything of it at the time.”