To some, it’s the loss of a colleague and friend. For students, it’s the loss of a mentor and a role model.
For the faculty union, it’s their voice.
Sherry Linkon’s departure from Youngstown State University will have different effects for different people, but the void left in her absence will touch many.
This will be Linkon’s last semester as a faculty member at YSU. She will begin a new career at Georgetown University in the fall as director of the Writing Curriculum Initiative, a newly created position where she will develop writing programs.
At 52, Linkon — former spokesman for YSU’s chapter of the Ohio Education Association, host of “Lincoln Avenue” on WYSU, professor of English, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and former director of the American studies program — has made the most of her 22 years at YSU.
“I’m the kind of person who likes to get involved in things,” Linkon said. “I tend to operate on the assumption that I don’t have a right to complain if I’m not willing to step up and try to do something.”
Linkon’s facilitation of her colleagues’ initiatives left a lasting impression on Gary Salvner, outgoing chairman of the English department.
“She was very helpful in getting us started with our assessment program,” Salvner said. “We’d be in the middle of a meeting, and you’d see her really engaged.”
To Linkon, it’s simply a frame of mind.
“It’s being able to look at the landscape of what we have and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve got, and here’s what we can do with it,’” Linkon said.
After graduating from high school, Linkon enrolled at Macalester College, with hopes of becoming a rabbi or a music therapist.
“I didn’t become a rabbi because they canceled the Hebrew class the first semester I was in school,” Linkon said. “The great joke is that I didn’t want to become a rabbi because I didn’t want to go to five more years of college. Here I am, I got a Ph.D.”
After doing “badly” in her required statistics classes, Linkon abandoned the music therapy degree as well.
By mixing elements of journalism and professional and creative writing, Linkon got her bachelor’s degree in 1981. She then received a master’s degree in English in 1983 from the University of Denver.
After earning her doctorate in American studies at the University of Minnesota in 1990, Linkon accepted a position at Metropolitan State College of Denver, teaching writing and women’s studies.
In 1994, Linkon’s tendency to get involved landed her the position of director of the American studies program at YSU. After former director James Dale passed away, a group convened to determine the next leader.
“I said, ‘I’m the only person in the room who has a Ph.D. in American studies; I will run this program,’” Linkon said.
For the next 10 years, she guided the program, increased student participation and created a master’s degree program.
Linkon said her greatest accomplishment has been her role in the development of the CWCS.
Linkon, her husband John Russo and several others pioneered the program in 1996.
What resulted was a new field of study for academics across the country.
“It’s the thing that’s had the most impact, not only locally, but nationally,” Linkon said.
Russo and Linkon co-wrote “Steeltown U.S.A.,” which has sold more than 7,000 copies.
“I think the book made a difference,” Linkon said. “Absolutely ordinary people read our stuff. That’s very unusual. Not many academics can say that.”
The future of the center they built from the ground up is now in peril.
“I’m a little anxious,” Linkon said. “Just because you’ve built something over a long time and you want to make sure that at least parts of it continue.”
“CWCS is the most international and nationally known center on this campus,” Russo said. He said he also fears the university won’t prioritize its continuance.
Linkon’s departure is bittersweet.
“Last fall, I reached a point where I was frustrated with a number of things at YSU and wanted to look for a different job,” Linkon said.
After a summer of contentious contract negotiations for the faculty union, Linkon said she feels slighted by the way the administration and the board of trustees approached the negotiations process.
It wasn’t about the money, but rather about the respect.
“It was more about the attitudes,” Linkon said. “It felt to me … that things are not going to be productive here between the board and faculty for a while, and I was discouraged by that.”
Past negotiations’ atmospheres have varied, but last year’s standoff was too much for the union’s spokeswoman.
“It felt like they don’t really value us. They can say they appreciate us, but they’re not doing anything in the way they talk to us,” Linkon said.
Attempts to reach Ron Cole, director of university communications, were unsuccessful.
Julia Gergits, a professor of English and the president of YSU-OEA, worked closely with Linkon during the negotiations and said she was awestruck by her calmness during tense times.
“She was invaluable,” Gergits said. “It’s not an easy job [to find an amicable message] to send out [in] press releases all within a few minutes.”
Linkon said the wounds suffered during the process won’t heal. She contemplated becoming less involved to avoid encountering future conflicts.
“The idea of being here for 10 more years, and keeping my head down, and doing my work, and trying to ignore what’s going on, I knew I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I would be really unhappy.”
She began seeking new opportunities in the fall; shortly thereafter, she was contacted by Georgetown.
“I don’t think it had to be this way,” Russo said. Gergits calls it a “horrible, horrific loss.”
Graduate assistant Sarah Lowry credits Linkon with inspiring her to “make a difference in the world and to not give up.”
“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for [Linkon],” Lowry said. “She taught me that one person has the power and the ability to bring about change.”
Russo said he plans to retire at the end of the calendar year. The couple will keep their house in Youngstown, as Russo will travel back and forth to continue his work in the community.
“John jokes some people have a summer home on a lake somewhere; ours is in the heart of Youngstown. But we like Youngstown,” Linkon said.