Alumni Spotlight: Phyllis Reinhardt '78

Alumna blazes trail in early days of coeducation for daughter and granddaughter to follow.
Phyllis Reinhardt '78

While the campus of The University of Scranton has been known to inspire a sort of “love at first sight” in many of its grads who grew up outside of the Scranton area, Phyllis Reinhardt ’78 humorously recalled a decidedly different sort of first encounter with northeastern Pennsylvania while driving past the culm dumps, or mountainous piles of coal mining waste, alongside Interstate 81 in 1960 to meet the family of Carl Richard Shewack, her husband-to-be at the time.

“He’s bringing me to meet his parents, and it was a beautiful, beautiful day in the spring,” she said. “The windows are down, mind you, and I get a whiff of the culm dumps, and I think, ‘Oh my God, what am I getting into? What am I doing?’

“That was my introduction to Scranton.”

Despite that less-than-stellar introduction, Reinhardt, a native of Wisconsin and a veteran of both the Air Force and the U.S. Army Reserve, came to appreciate life in the Electric City.

“There is an atmosphere in Scranton that makes you want to get to know people,” she said. “I’ve lived in several places over my military career, and I came back here.

“Scranton is a good place to live.”

After spending her childhood on a farm in Wisconsin, Reinhardt joined the Air Force and was stationed in Syracuse, New York, where she met Shewack, who was also serving in the Air Force. The couple married in May of 1960, and, after Carl finished his term of service and Phyllis was discharged on the basis of marriage, they settled in Scranton. Along the way, they were blessed with three children: Lisa, Linda and Carl Richard Jr.

“Scranton was a wonderful place to raise the kids,” she said.

After a decade of marriage, Reinhardt and Shewack divorced, and Phyllis decided to pursue her dream of going to college. After briefly working toward a career as a medical secretary and realizing that she was never going to master stenography, she took an aptitude test that indicated she would excel at social work and decided to pursue a degree in sociology at The University of Scranton.

Learning How To Learn

Reinhardt joined the U.S. Army Reserve to help finance the cost of her education. When she enrolled at the University in 1974, coeducation, which began in 1972, was still a fairly new phenomenon, and some of the faculty members she encountered were still adjusting to the new status quo.

“Many of the professors still called us ‘guys,’” she said. “They had not yet made that transition to ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ but I never felt that anyone resented our being here.”

On the whole, Reinhardt said she felt quite welcome on campus.

“The University is a welcoming community,” she said. “It’s warm. People are very outgoing.”

At the University, she said she encountered a priest who helped contextualize both her purpose as an undergraduate student and her innate desire to serve others.

“He said, ‘If you’re here to learn how to do a job, you’re in the wrong place … you’re here to learn how to learn,’” she said. “That always struck me as, ‘Yes, you have to learn, you have to put that energy and that knowledge to good use, and how better than to help your fellow human beings?’”

During her student days, Reinhardt served on the University Senate and the Dexter Hanley Council, where she was elected vice president during her senior year; she also became the first woman to join the University’s Veterans Club. While she can barely remember how she managed to successfully juggle her extracurriculars, her studies, her job and her family, she said the University’s emphasis on nurturing her spiritual core aided her efforts.

“My life was busy, but to find the peace and contentment of knowing that you are part of something bigger than yourself … that lesson has really stuck with me,” she said. “There were times throughout my life where things didn’t go so well, but that sense of spiritual being, that this is the core of every human being – if you aren’t in touch with that, life can be pretty rugged.”

A Woman For And With Others

After graduating from the University, Reinhardt moved to Nebraska to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. When her mother fell ill, she moved back to Wisconsin to care for her. After her mother passed, Reinhardt took on a “dual status” position in the U.S. Army Reserve that allowed her to function in both a military and civilian capacity, and she worked toward a master’s degree in public administration at Iowa State University. At the beginning of the Gulf War, she was promoted to director of Family Programs, a new position in which she helped prepare reserve soldiers and their family members for the challenges of deployment by briefing them on their benefits and informing them of the various resources they could utilize for support, and she continued to serve in that capacity until her retirement a decade later.

“(The reserves) decided that they needed a family readiness program to support military families, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the first 10 people to hold that position,” she said. “I met the most wonderful people.”

After a long career spent teaching, training and assisting others, Reinhardt retired and returned to Scranton, where she almost immediately began volunteering to teach, train and assist others. She became a docent for Scranton’s Everhart Museum, where she has led school groups on tours of the property for the past 20 years. She joined the National Active & Retired Federal Employees Association Scranton Chapter 129 and currently serves as its president. Drawing upon her days on the farm in Wisconsin, she became a master gardener for the Penn State Cooperative Extension, where she lends her vast experience to her fellow gardeners in the interest of helping them solve their problems. She also became active in Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to fixing legislative rules in order to end gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. At the University, she joined the Friends of the Library Advisory Board and attended many of the cultural enrichment programs and luncheons offered by the Schemel Forum. Ultimately, Reinhardt said she believes that we are here to serve each other, and she enjoys spending her time helping the people of her community.

“It makes me feel, I guess, needed,” she said. “I had 15,000 soldiers and their families looking to me for guidance when they deployed, and, suddenly, nobody needed me. The phone stopped ringing, the emails were no more, so I guess I filled that gap by (volunteering).”

She also hasn’t stopped pursuing new interests: despite “never graduating from drawing stick people,” she began taking oil painting classes at the Dunmore Senior Center a few years ago and has enjoyed them immensely.

A Scranton Legacy

As an early pioneer of coeducation at the University, Reinhardt helped blaze a trail for thousands of women to follow in the decades to come, including her daughter, Lisa Thurston ’85, G’09, academic dean at Scranton Preparatory School, and her granddaughter, Catherine Thurston, VMD ’15, a large animal surgery resident at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.

“To see them succeed, and so well – it makes me very proud, obviously,” she said. “They are in fields where they are helping people, so maybe it’s a family tradition to share your knowledge, to help people solve their problems?

“It’s very heartwarming.”

While the University has certainly seen its share of changes since Reinhardt’s student days, she said the warmth and welcoming spirit she first encountered nearly half a century ago remains intact, and she plans to continue to serve the greater University community in the years to come.

“It has always been one of my better achievements to have graduated and to be able to use that and give back,” she said. “Serving on the (Friends of the Library Advisory Board), I can give back to the students who are following me and make it a better environment for them." 

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