In Memoriam: William F. “Tuna” Trask, Longtime Director of Graduate and Career Plans and a Friend and Mentor to Generations of WPI Students

March 25, 2017

Trask reads from WPI's centennial history, Two Towers, in
2015, a tradition he established at the annual Founders
Day celebration in recent years.

William Foley Trask, who directed WPI’s career office for more than three decades and who is remembered by multiple generations of WPI students as a trusted confidant, wise advisor, and loyal friend, died on March 25, 2017, at the age of 87.

Born in 1929 in Rochester, Vt., then a town of just 600 residents, he served as a legislative page in the Vermont State House during his sophomore year of high school. Of the 20 students in his graduating class, he was the only one to go on to college. In 1947 he enrolled at Middlebury College, where he majored in history, was active in theatre, and was a member of the Blue Key honor society and Delta Upsilon fraternity.

He received his AB in 1952, a semester late. “I had three jobs,” he wrote in the program for the “Tuna Files,” a 2016 exhibit in the Gordon Library’s Gladwin Gallery drawn from his diaries and extensive collection of memorabilia. “I worked in the snack bar for four-and-a-half years, three to four times a week. I was a vegetable boy. I was a waiter. I did all kinds of things. What suffered were my grades, so I spent an extra semester at Middlebury. But it was just one of those things.”

At Middlebury, he met fellow student Ruth Ann Shonyo. They dated, and Ruth wrote to him almost daily after graduation, when he was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps and sent to Parris Island for basic training. They were married 1954, before Trask was assigned to Camp Lejuene in North Carolina. 

After his discharge from the Marines, Trask returned to his alma mater to accept a position as assistant dean of men. When the dean was fired a year later, Bill’s job ended, too. Needing work to help support his growing family, he took a job as an advertising manager at the Addison County Independent, a newspaper in Middlebury where Ruth was employed as a reporter.

In 1958 WPI centralized a number of placement-related offices into the Placement Bureau and went looking for a new administrator to direct it. A former colleague at Middlebury alerted Trask to the opening, and he applied and was invited for an interview that May. “I’ll never forget that day,” he said in a 2013 interview. “Because it was cold in Vermont, I wore a wool suit. Ruth and I got to Worcester, and it was in the high 70s. Here I am with a wool suit on, and my shirt was sweaty. But it worked out well.”

Trask was hired to fill two jobs, as placement director and assistant dean of students, both reporting to dean of students Donald Downing. He traveled in the summer and fall to recruit students, and managed the Placement Bureau, located in Boynton Hall, in the winter and spring. Trask made an immediate connection with the undergraduates, who dedicated the 1962 student yearbook, The Peddler, to him.

“Although he has been here only since 1958, Bill Trask has made an impression on the student body enjoyed by few members of the administration or faculty,” the dedication read. “Bill’s smile, his constant activity, his eagerness to help any student who asks for assistance, and his sincere desire to make his department as effective as possible have made a lasting impression on those who know him. The success of his efforts is clearly shown each year by the large percentage of seniors who obtain challenging, productive work.”

But a decade later, Trask’s accessibility and the considerable time he spent mentoring students became an issue for the new dean of student affairs, Donald Reutlinger. “He didn’t like the fact that kids could come to my office and sit down to read the paper or have a cup of coffee. He thought we should be treating them as outside people, as strangers. I said, ‘That’s not me, Don. I can’t do that. My door is open, and I want the kids to feel comfortable coming in to see me, and not having to make appointments.’”

Trask poses at the entrance to the Office of Graduate and
Career Plans, located on the third floor of Boynton Hall.

In 1975 Reutlinger stripped Trask of his associate dean for student affairs title. Trask moved full-time into the placement office, now known as the Office of Graduate and Career Plans and located in the chapel (Sinclair Hall) on the third floor of Boynton. He would hold that post until his retirement in 1992, and throughout those years he continued to make himself available to any students who needed advice, a sounding board, or just a comfortable space where they could feel safe and supported amid the turmoil and stress of student life.

“No matter the trivial nature of my visits, I always felt that I mattered,” says Anne McPartland Dodd ’75, who first met Trask in 1971. “That office was a safe space for the student, manned by a gentleman who seemed so much more mature, but who, I learned later, was not much older than we were. I sometimes think that while we grew up, Dean Trask never completely lost his youth. To hear him laugh was to hear pure joy, deeply felt and freely shared—right out loud. He was remarkable in many ways and deeply loved by many for his big heart and open mind.”

Over the years, he helped run a number of programs at WPI. He helped found and direct Techniquest, a predecessor to the Frontiers summer enrichment program for high school students and one of the first summer programs in the country to introduce secondary school students to college life. He served on the board of the Goat’s Head Pub, a watering hole for students and faculty members located for many years in the lower level of Sanford Riley Hall. He organized the United Way 24-hour basketball marathon, and for more than 20 years he ran the United Way campus auction (one of the most sought-after items each year was a famously colorful Bill Trask tie)..

He was a member of and an advisor to Skull, the senior honorary society, served as a mentor to student resident advisors, and for many years was the "traffic manager" at Commencement, helping plan the procession and the seating plan for students. He was also the longtime secretary of the Tech Old Timers, an organization for retired alumni, faculty members, and staff.

Bill and Ruth also remained active in the life of their alma mater, Middlebury College. They were avid fundraisers and Bill was an active member of his fraternity. They chaired their 25th, 50th, and 55th reunions.

At the celebration of Skull's 100th anniversary in 2011, Trask
shared the organization's inaugural George P. Dixon Award
with another revered advisor, physics professor Van Bluemel.

Trask’s support for student life and student lives at WPI earned him a number of honors over the years. In 1990 he was named to the Order of Omega, a national organization that recognized fraternity men and women who have attained a high standard of leadership in interfraternity activities. He was named the Eastern College Personnel Officers’ Outstanding College Member of 1992. In 2010 the WPI Alumni Association presented him with its first Distinguished Service Award (now known as the Goat's Head Award for Lifetime Commitment to WPI).

“Bill ‘Tuna’ Trask is beloved by our alumni,” said Peter Thomas, executive director of lifetime engagement in the University Advancement division. “He filled a role of mentor, job coach, and, most important, friend to so many who have crossed Earle Bridge.”

In 1983, to celebrate his 25th year at WPI, several students organized a roast in his honor. And to observe his retirement in 1992, two wooden benches were installed and a birch tree was planted in his honor in front of Boynton Hall. A resident of West Boylston since 1961, he was a member of the First Congregational Church, appeared in plays in various theater groups in Worcester County, and volunteered at the West Boylston High School library. He could often be found at the Country Kettle or Lou Roc’s for breakfast.

After his retirement, Trask remained an almost constant presence on campus, making regular visits to fraternity houses to chat and play cards, attending sporting events and student theater and music productions, and getting to know each new class of students. For an oral history completed in conjunction with the Tuna Files exhibit, he talked about this facet of his life.

“I figured, hey, you’ve got know the kids. And what better way to get to know them than to go where they live and be part of things that they are involved with. I did get to know the students and the students got to know me. People think it’s weird. They’ll have friends from other schools who will say, I can’t believe this old man is at the fraternity party having a beer with the rest of the boys! I don’t cook, so unless I go to a fraternity house for supper or I go to a restaurant, I live on peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk. Maybe that’s what keeps me young…the peanut butter!”

This  bobblehead was among
the many items from Trask's
extensive collection of papers
and memorabilia included in
the "Tuna Files" exhibit. 

The “Tuna Files” drew from his personal papers, an extensive collection of postcards, correspondence, memorabilia, publications, and t-shirts chronicling Trask’s decades on campus, which he donated to the Gordon Library archives in 2015. Trask spent many hours organizing the collection and helping to plan the exhibit.

“Curating his collection filled a big part of his days on campus over the last few years,” said Jessica Branco Colati, assistant director for curation, preservation, and archives “He'd be in a couple of times a week with various ‘Tuna helpers’ to sort and organize his massive collection for us. More stories than anyone but Tuna can remember and lots of laughter accompanied the effort. It was another place where he could hold court and recreate a little of that physical home he once had on campus. When we look back, I’m sure the moments we spent with Tuna will be some of more memorable of our archival careers.”

Students who got to know Trask in recent years were often puzzled about his nickname, “Tuna.” In a 2013 interview for True to Plan: Crafting an Educational Revolution Beneath the Two Towers, the history of WPI from 1965 to 2015, he explained the origin of the moniker.

“By my senior year at Middlebury, I weighed 197 pounds, and it was all in my gut. I guess I drank too much beer. Students took to calling me ‘Tuna,’ because of my shape. By the time I came back from Parris Island, I was down to 162 pounds. I was slim and slender, and the nickname didn’t seem to fit anymore. Years later, in the late 80s or early 90s, a WPI student met someone who’d known me at Middlebury; he told him about the nickname. He brought the story back to his fraternity house, and it didn’t take long for the name to stick. So today, 99 percent of the people at WPI know me as ‘Tuna.’”

Trask is survived by sons Jeff and Terry, daughters Carrie and Laurie, three grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. Ruth passed away in July 2016.

A funeral service will be held at the First Congregational Church, 26 Central Street, in West Boylston, Mass., on Saturday, April 1, at 11 a.m. Interment will be at Rochester Cemetery in Rochester, Vt., at the convenience of the family.

Memorial donations may be made to WPI , Middlebury College, or the First Congregation Church in West Boylston.