by Richard Bader
Of the various “Reading” things John Loyack has done since being chosen as Alvernia’s seventh president, two stand out. One was having lunch at Jimmy Kramer’s Peanut Bar, the iconic Reading restaurant that’s perhaps best known as the place where it’s OK to throw your peanut shells on the floor. The second was attending the Berks Jazz Fest, held this year in late March and April, which featured the Berks High School All-Star Jazz Band, the Navy Commodores, tributes to Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin, a trio playing what they called “Sweet, Sexy Soul,” and dozens of other performances at venues throughout downtown. “How lovely it was,” Loyack said, “and how little people outside of the area seem to know of it.”
That lack of awareness of what’s going on in Reading is something that Loyack would like to change.
Alvernia’s new president has big ideas for both the university and its home city. Loyack comes to Alvernia from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, where he was executive vice president of finance and the architect of a college turnaround that today gets described in biblical terms, with words like “redemption” and “resurrection.” A big part of that turnaround involved transforming abandoned downtown buildings into structures that would house the kinds of programs the college wanted to create. In the process, Wilkes- Barre became a college town. He’d like to see something similar happen in Reading.
“You bring the building back to life, repurpose it, and bring economic activity to it, expand the mission of the institution, and grow the city, all in one activity,” Loyack said, “I love activities that have that kind of multifaceted impact. They open up all kinds of doors.”
Unlike King’s College when Loyack arrived there in 2012, Alvernia’s vital signs are strong. Enrollment is at its highest level ever. The budget has been in the black for 15 consecutive years. But while the university may be in good shape, the city of Reading could use a shot in the arm. According to the most recent census data, the median household income in the city is below $30,000 a year. More than a third of residents live in poverty. In 2011, The New York Times said Reading was the poorest city in the U.S.