After Three Decades, John Strangfeld is Perched Atop the Rock

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John Strangfeld in his office at the Prudential building in Newark, N.J.STRANGFELD, VICE CHAIRMAN of Susquehanna’s Board of Trustees, grew up in Baltimore and later moved to Chatham, N.J., about 14 miles from where he now works. He describes his upbringing with his two sisters and a brother as “suburban” and suggests nothing exceptional about it. He did not play sports, was not a class officer and his foray into the arts was limited to the trumpet, which he briefly considered as a major when he went to college. “My experience was that I graduated in the middle of my high school class, I had respectable board scores, pretty average grades and not a lot of clarity as to what I wanted to do,” he says. “It’s not that I was lazy; I just didn’t have a lot of clarity.”

He was raised with good values by parents who are accomplished individuals with many interests and hearts full of charity and kindness. His father is an amateur actor who has performed for the last 60 years in comic Gilbert and Sullivan productions in both Baltimore and Ridgewood, N.J. Strangfeld’s father once caught the eye of a New York Times drama critic, who referred to him as “old rubber face” because of his ease in putting on dramatic facial expressions. Strangfeld’s mother was a nurse. Late in life she decided to go back to school to get the college degree she always wanted but never had the time to pursue. She enrolled at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where at age 71 she earned a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in women’s studies.

For a number of years they raised foster children. Soon after the fall of Saigon, they took in a Vietnamese family who lived with the Strangfelds for more than a year. They also raised Seeing Eye puppies, and today they rescue Seeing Eye retirees.

When it was time for Strangfeld to spread his wings, he set his sights on Susquehanna. His choice was pragmatic and uncomplicated — he had undergraduate friends who spoke well of the school, and he felt comfortable when he visited. The school’s small size appealed to him because he believed he would not get lost or overwhelmed.

Strangfeld did not exactly set the world on fire during his first months on campus. When he went home for winter break, his GPA was around 2.3 or 2.6 — he can’t remember exactly. What he does remember, though, is that his first-semester grades spawned an epiphany of sorts. “It dawned on me that having graduated at the middle of my class in high school and having such a modest GPA, I was not on a trajectory for great success,” he says with understatement. “And it wasn’t going to quite line up with my aspirations to be something in life.”

So Strangfeld embarked on an experiment. He would go to the library every school night, Sunday through Thursday, and stay until he was the last one there. During those hours he would seriously book it — no socializing, no goofing off. If at the end of the semester the effort paid off with good grades, he would make the library routine a habit. But if it didn’t pay off, he would go back to his usual routine.

Strangfeld calls the results of the experiment “self-reinforcing.” He learned something very basic about himself. “What I found is that there was an enormously high correlation between the amount of effort I put in and the outcome.” By simply applying himself, he discovered that he could pretty much accomplish whatever he wanted.

The experiment turned into a full-time preoccupation. He socialized on weekends and held a weekend job as an assistant cook in his fraternity house. But on weeknights he was a study grunt. He could feel he was on a roll and nothing was going to stand in his way. Although the ’70s were turbulent times on college campuses, with anti-war demonstrations and widespread rejection of authority, Strangfeld says he remained focused on his work. “For me, I found I needed to be single purposed. My focus was on how good an education I could get and how good my grades could be so that I could parlay that into the next move. My belief was that I had to be myopic. I had the appearance of the time, with the long hair and all that jazz, but I was more of a conformist.”

After his first semester, Strangfeld says he rarely earned less than an A. He graduated in the top 15 of his class. To this day, he credits the professors who took an interest in him for his success. Primarily because of the opportunity SU gave him during this period, he remains deeply loyal to the school, donating many hours out of his busy life to serve as a trustee. And the take-home lesson for him, one that is now deeply ingrained in his psyche, is that hard work pays off.

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