The half-century long Red Dragon love story of Ray Franco ’72, M ’75, Ed.D., and Donna Still Franco ’73, M ’76 reads like many other happily-ever-after stories chronicled in the alumni association’s Class Notes section, with one notable twist.
Less than three months after Donna’s graduation in 1973, the newlyweds returned to their alma mater and, in many ways, never left.
Ray, a Herkimer, N.Y., native, earned an Ed.D. from Syracuse University while he served the Student Affairs Division through five consecutive presidents, rising to vice president of student affairs. In 2006, he made a major career shift to vice president for institutional advancement, where he saw to completion a record-breaking capital campaign. He retired in 2012 as vice president for student affairs and institutional advancement emeritus.
Ray always tried to pay it forward because of his own mentoring by John Catalano, a psychology professor who passed very recently.
“Many years later, when I was vice president for student affairs, my experience with John Catalano contributed to my belief that faculty and staff engagement with students, and something as simple as learning and remembering students’ names, was very important,” he said.
Meanwhile Donna, who grew up in Tappan, N.Y., studied early secondary English with a concentration in reading, and later earned an M.S.Ed. in elementary education at Cortland. She spent her career as a reading/mathematics specialist and reading recovery educator in the Homer Central School District and the Cortland Enlarged City School District. She also supervised student teachers for SUNY Cortland for a time, allowing her to work with college students in a professional setting.
“I continue to be involved with the university through the SUNY Cortland alumni chapter, which supports student activities and encourages participation in alumni events,” Donna said. “Our alumni chapter has wonderful volunteers, who are fun to work with and are dedicated to the university.”
At the very start of their exciting, 50-plus year relationship, Ray, a junior psychology major and Clark Hall resident assistant, and Donna, a sophomore living across the street in Bishop Hall, struck up a brief chat as they ambled down the hill to a soccer game.
“I wasn’t a real soccer fan and as it turns out, it was the only soccer game either of us ever attended while students at Cortland,” Ray said.
After two years of dating and an engagement, Ray and Donna married in 1973. They enjoyed an unforgettable, 58-day cross-country sightseeing honeymoon living in their fixed-up Chevy van.
“We saw so many incredible parts of the country, camping in national parks along the way,” recalled Ray. “It was a trip of a lifetime.”
Upon their return, they began their married life in Alger Hall, where Ray was the residence hall director.
“Donna had gotten a teaching job in Homer (N.Y.). It was challenging for her living in a residence hall and going to graduate classes after a full day of teaching,” Ray recalled.
“After the second year in Alger, I was promoted to assistant director of housing and we were fortunate to live in a beautiful apartment on the second floor of Brockway Hall in Fall 1975. Our son, Stephen, was born in September 1976.
“Toting a toddler and groceries up three flights of stairs from the back parking lot was very difficult,” he said. “We quickly realized that we needed to find a home with a backyard.”
So, they moved with 10-month-old Stephen to their first home on Chestnut Street in July 1977, where they welcomed their other two sons, Brad and Brian.
To mark their big wedding anniversary this year and in recognition of their lifelong love affair with SUNY Cortland, the couple — who already supported the university at the Charter Patron level — in 2021 joined the institution’s Lofty Elm Society by naming SUNY Cortland to receive a future, bequest gift to endow the Donna Still Franco ’73, M ’76 and Raymond D. Franco ’72, M ’75 Scholarship.
Recipients of the approximately $1,000 award are full-time sophomores, juniors or seniors in good academic standing who have demonstrated engagement in volunteer and community service.
“Ideally, it will be awarded to students who are engaged in the greater Cortland community while they are students here,” Donna said.
“If they do, we hope that they will come to understand the importance of such involvement and will continue to be engaged community leaders as they pursue their careers throughout their lives,” Ray said.
Thanks to the generosity of the Francos and their eldest son, Stephen Franco ’05, the president of Bailey Place Insurance in Cortland, N.Y., and daughter-in-law, Janine, the first scholarship was awarded in Fall 2022. Catherine Reid ’22 of Macedon, N.Y., who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in December, is the first recipient.
“I was honored to be selected for an award that valued merit, community service and future plans after college,” Reid said. “Having financial help during college allowed me to focus on extra curriculars, classes and my internship with the SUNY Cortland University Police Department.”
A former resident assistant at SUNY Cortland, Reid often volunteered extra hours to run programs for students in areas such as stress relief. She took part in a Peer Led Team Learning program for chemistry students. Reid currently is being considered for the New York State Trooper Academy and aspires to complete a second bachelor’s degree in biology.
“I want to be a voice of change and support officers who struggle with mental health or career changes due to injury on the job,” Reid said. “I also hope to encourage positive relationships between community and police by being a caring person in the position.”
Ray observed that, when talking with colleagues across the state, it was clear that SUNY Cortland produces exceptional leaders.
“Our students were eager to work with our staff on solving campus problems,” he said. “Students who were involved in student government wanted to make the college experience better for all.”