Calvaruso combines the best of two worlds
Briefly meeting Ford during that visit, Albion student Joseph Calvaruso caught the political bug that would eventually lead him to his current position as executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation.
“He came and spoke at the college. I had the opportunity to meet him and shake hands with him,” he said. “Somehow it planted the seed back then that public service was important, and being involved with the political process was important.”
Calvaruso enrolled at Albion College as pre-med, but in his junior year began taking business classes.
“When I was getting toward my junior year, I thought, jeez, what if I don’t get into medical school? I started taking business classes and ended up getting my degree in 1978 in economics and management,” he said.
“I applied to one medical school, and if I didn’t get in, I was going to move forward.”
He didn’t get in and decided to stick around Albion for another year to pursue a career in accounting. He enrolled in eight accounting classes over the course of the year, and in 1979, he left school to enter the banking world.
“About the time I was finishing up my accounting program, a bank in Jackson was looking for a local person to start out,” he said. The bank was City Bank and Trust.
“They were looking for local people right out of college. I started out in their training program-slash-credit analyst.”
Calvaruso was there only one year. He had decided to pursue a master’s degree in business administration.
“At that time, there weren’t many MBA programs to choose from. It just wasn’t going to be possible to do it from Jackson, couldn’t do it online,” he said. “(Today) it’s a whole different world. Now you can enroll in MBA programs and Ph.D. programs no matter where you live.”
He found a job with Comerica Bank in Kalamazoo and began taking MBA classes at Western Michigan University.
Company/Organization: Gerald R. Ford Foundation
Calvaruso worked at the Kalamazoo bank as a commercial lender for seven years, staying on two more years after receiving his MBA in finance in 1985. In 1987, he had the opportunity to join Shoreline Bank, a growing community bank in South Haven.
“My boss had left around that time to be the No. 2 person at a little bank in South Haven. He asked me to go along with him. He and I were pretty close, and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” he said.
When Calvaruso and his boss came to Shoreline, it was struggling. Operational issues and outstanding loan payments weighed the small bank down, but Calvaruso was up for the challenge.
“We rolled up our shirtsleeves, and it was a lot of fun,” he said.
Immediately, he said, he had to begin to collect on past-due loans, which can be tricky in the relationship-heavy environment of a community bank.
“You go and approach it with the philosophy of working with your customers and working through the problems to solutions.”
The economy was unstable, but Calvaruso pointed out differences between the current recession and the economy in 1987.
“What was different from this recession to that, the spikes used to come and go, and if you worked hard, you got through the spikes. What’s different about this banking economy is that the economy hasn’t changed that much in Michigan. The spike is more of an extended period of time,” said Calvaruso.
By the time he left in 2004, he was executive vice president. During his 17 years there, Calvaruso said he fell in love with community banking.
“Community banking is special. You know the people in town; you’re trying to create jobs; you’re trying to be a mentor.”
During those years at the Shoreline, Calvaruso married Donna, a longtime friend he had met in the banking industry in 1997.
“She was working at a bank that we were selling loans and participating with,” he said. “We just developed a friendship. My wife is my best friend.”
For vacations, the couple would volunteer to do advance work for political campaigns. Advanced volunteers go to upcoming event sites, inspect the area and organize the event. Calvaruso had volunteered for Bob Dole when he ran for president in 1996, and for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s first run for the White House in 2000.
Calvaruso left the bank when he was asked to join the campaign trail full time for Vice President Cheney when he and President Bush ran for a second term.
“One day I got a call from Mary Cheney, who said, ‘Dad and I were talking about his team to go on the road with him for the campaign, and your name came up. We’d love to have you join us on the campaign trail,’” he said.
“I thought, ‘That works. I can do that.’ It was an experience that was an honor to do. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, I think we all should support the political process and the candidates of our choice.”
When Bush and Cheney won re-election, Calvaruso and his wife went to Washington, D.C., and worked on the inaugural committee.
“I was overall team lead, and she was head of the press operations. Part way through the administration, they figured out we made a great team and let us work together. We work incredibly well together,” he said. “During the inaugural committee, we shared an office in Washington.”
The committee, he said, works to organize “the events and the ball, and any function regarding the celebration. The swearing in ceremony is run by Congress. I was involved with some of the events and the ticketing. Since I was a banker, they entrusted me with the ticket vaults — banker, trustworthy, tickets,” he laughed. “As soon as the inaugural is done, that ends, so Jan. 20, it just ends.”
During his political volunteering career, Calvaruso travelled around the world to prepare the way for Vice President Cheney. In his last year, he found himself traveling to Tanzania, Egypt, Turkey and the Republic of Georgia while the latter was at war.
“What I found very rewarding was how much the Republic of Georgia, the people, loved us and wanted us there. The greeting we had … you could see hundreds of thousands of people lining the street waving U.N. flags and U.S. flags, doing high fives and thanking us for being there. And those were flags that they (had) — those weren’t something that we did. They were not planted. It was something that they had done,” he said.
“In Tanzania, the respect the Tanzanians have for President Bush and the presidency, in general, goes back years, for the help and the respect that the U.S. has helped the citizens of that country.
“I think that makes it rewarding — the appreciation and the respect between the (other) countries and our country. That’s something you don’t get to see on the news.”
As he prepared to return to his banking career, Calvaruso received several offers from West Michigan banks. He decided on Mercantile Bank, and in 2005, took the position of senior vice president, director of risk management, a newly created position.
“I always wanted to work in Grand Rapids, so it was a nice opportunity for me to change locations and do a little something different in my career,” he said. “I was the first person to be the director of risk management. That was at a period of time when Mercantile was growing and building their organization.”
Taking on a new position was enticing for Calvaruso, who enjoys a challenge.
“It was great. Mercantile people were outstanding, and Grand Rapids is a great community,” he said. “It was a great four years.”
It was while attending a nonprofit fundraiser that Calvaruso was approached by a trustee of the Ford Foundation about assuming the role of executive director.
“One of the trustees for the foundation wanted to know why I hadn’t applied for the job. There were two things: one, I didn’t know about it, and, two, I wasn’t looking for a new job,” he said. “They had been looking around for quite a few months for someone with a business background and some Washington experience. It was purely by accident that the connection was made.”
Calvaruso was already serving on the advising committee for his alma mater’s Gerald R. Ford Institute for Public Policy and Service. He took the executive director position for the foundation in January 2009.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the presidential foundation. Our mission and goal is to keep alive the president’s legacy, as well as all presidents, and passing that along to school kids and the public,” he said.
“It’s a perfect job for someone with 29 years of banking experience and White House/Washington experience to be the executive director of a presidential foundation. It’s been the pinnacle of a career to take those two and put them together.
“President Ford has a great legacy and is someone I’ve always admired since 1977.”