Michael John Lavelle, the first director of residence and professor at University of Toronto Mississauga, passed away on October 3rd. Hundreds of people attended his memorial, many of whom were former students and residence dons at UTM.
Lavelle started his career as a basketball coach. His love of sports led him from St. Michael’s College School, to University of Waterloo, McMaster, and finally U of T. As director of residence at UTM, Lavelle constantly kept up with the well-being of students on residence.
In 2004, Lavelle was the recipient of the Paul W. Fox Award. This award recognizes distinguished voluntary service at UTM, and is given to community members “invested in improving campus life at University of Toronto Mississauga.” The Medium spoke with Christina Crowe, Ken Derry, Sue Prior, and Robert Price to discuss Lavelle’s lasting impact on both residence life and his students.
Former student and residence don Christina Crowe describes Lavelle as a father figure during her time at UTM. As a residence don, Crowe noticed how Lavelle would regularly check in and ensure that everyone was getting along. Crowe remembers how Lavelle would always be there for her, and she would go to him when in need of help. “I was in need of a surrogate dad, and when I needed a decision, he was the person I would call,” Crowe says.
Years later, Lavelle also became Crowe’s step-father. For Crowe, Lavelle’s passing is a notable loss. She relates how he was always there for her and her children. “I don’t know anyone on the planet who has had such an impact on people,” she states.
According to Crowe, as a professor, Lavelle was “Socratic.” His course on Religion and Literature was not a typical university course. Instead of focusing on fulfilling formal requirements, Lavelle’s class provided students with an opportunity to express themselves.
“It was really important to him that we learn how to read literature,” Crowe recalls. “I don’t remember if there were tests and essays in that class, but we had to show up and have meaningful conversations with him.”
Sue Prior, the Manager of Alumni Development at the Office of Advancement, was a student leader and took courses with Lavelle during her time studying at UTM. Prior comments on the same course saying, “Mike was an amazing instructor. He didn’t give you the answer; he let you search in yourself for it. With him, there were never any wrong answers, rather there was a right answer for everyone.”
Even outside the classroom, Lavelle was keen about his students’ learning. Lavelle strongly believed in book therapy. Ken Derry, an associate professor in history of religions at UTM, recalls one question Lavelle always had for people: “What book are you reading?”
After asking, Lavelle would then tell the person what book he himself was reading, and would offer reading suggestions. Derry adds that Lavelle owned stationary with quotes that were meaningful to him written on them.
In addition to his passion for literature, Lavelle was never hesitant to fight for students’ rights. Reflecting on his life, Crowe describes him as “a bit of a rebel.”
“He was very caring about the residence students. He taught us how to be board and committee members. It didn’t matter if someone more powerful than us was on the other side. He would fight on the behalf of students,” Crowe says.
When asked to describe Lavelle as a person, Crowe remarks, “I think everyone knew him personally. There’s no one that worked with Mike that wasn’t emotionally involved. Friendship is the basis for all positive human relationships, and he taught us that. He loved people and he loved helping people.”
After Lavelle’s passing, Crowe stresses the monumental influence that he has left behind. “It was always really important for Mike to leave a good legacy, and I can’t think of anyone who has left a better legacy than him. We know how to be in the world because of the leadership he provided to us. While we miss him and we are grieving, there is still a sense of beauty and peace in the fact that we even had him to begin with,” she says.
Prior describes Lavelle as “one of the greatest men I have ever met” and remembers him as someone who would listen to people and their problems attentively, and that “when he was with you, he was completely in the moment.”
“He gave you a part of himself. The time he took to be away from his family and be with other people is extraordinary. He was one of a kind,” she says.
For Prior, the impact Lavelle has left on people’s lives is immeasurable. Every day, Prior speaks with alumni, who remember him and acknowledge his influence. “He has left a huge hole that will never be filled,” she says.
Lavelle did not just influence people with his words, but he was also responsible for aiding people in their career. Both Sue Prior and Ken Derry credit him for playing a considerable role in helping them reach where they are today.
“He was completely responsible for the job I have now. When I first started, I was in an administrative position. He would visit me and tell me that I was wasting my time. He saw potential in me that I never saw in myself. He said, ‘You can’t do this, you should be doing alumni work,’” Prior says, recalling the early stages of her career. Prior eventually applied and received an opportunity in the alumni department. She states that it has been a joyous experience for her, and accredits this to Lavelle.
Derry shares a similar story. Derry relays how Lavelle’s courses completely changed his life. He was studying biophysics during his undergrad, and after taking Lavelle’s courses he decided to switch over to studying religion. Derry describes a moment in his life when he was struggling in his career, and Lavelle helped him through it. Lavelle urged him to take the Myers-Briggs personality test, and act on the results. On Lavelle’s suggestion, Derry went on to graduate school. After working as a teaching assistant, Derry realized that this was what he wanted to do.
Derry recalls how Lavelle was never afraid to offer advice to other people, give them suggestions, and leave it to them if they wanted to follow his guidance. “He would give advice to people about their life. He had very strong opinions.”
At Lavelle’s memorial, Derry learned that he was known informally as “Big Mike” to a number of people. Derry comments on this saying that it was partly due to his great personality and incredible energy. “He was one of those people who seemed much taller than he was. He was incredibly vibrant, and had very alive eyes. He had this great spirit to him. He was thinking about people all the time, and was very caring. I’ve never met anyone like him,” Derry says.
Robert Price, an assistant professor in the Professional Writing and Communications department at UTM, was a residence don as an undergraduate student in the late 1990s. Price sheds light on Lavelle’s role as director of residence, “Mike was fantastic at his job. He took care of the place.”
Along with interacting with Lavelle on residence, Price also took courses with Lavelle and offers high praise for him as an instructor. “Mike was a fine professor. He out-taught most of the other religion professors, set high standards for his students, and deployed Socratic questioning better than any other teacher I can remember. He was refreshingly engaged. We’d say today that he ‘leaned in’ on the lives of the students and took great care to see they did their work and understood the course material.”
Not only did Lavelle fulfill the roles of residence director and instructor, Price also describes Lavelle as a reader. “I think he had read everything. He bought people books all the time. He mailed people books.”
Acknowledging Lavelle for impacting him as a person, Price recalls that Lavelle stimulated his interest on the big questions in life. Both Lavelle’s courses and leadership training for dons were opportunities for Price to reflect on such issues of life. Citing Lavelle as a role model, Price says, “I look to Mike and few other teachers as a model of the good teacher that I hope to be.”