Schenectady County Community College was only in its second full year of classes when Bob Larsson took the helm in 1970.
The U.S. Navy veteran and mathematics professor came with a goal of transforming the young two-year school at the former Van Curler hotel into an accessible college with an enhanced roster of programs. Over the next decade, Larsson helped lay the groundwork for the higher education programs that have since graduated tens of thousands of students.
“He really guided the college during the beginning years,” said Toby Strianese, a longtime professor at the college’s hotel, culinary arts and tourism department, whom Larsson hired in 1974. “For ten years, he brought us along from really the beginning of the college to making us recognized in the community.”
Larsson, who was recalled as a man of strong conviction and unwavering resolve, died Jan. 22. He was 94.
Larsson is survived by his wife Carolyn and four children. He was pre-deceased by his son William, who died of AIDS in the mid-1990s.
Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Feb. 9 at the Christ Community Reformed Church of Clifton Park.
Born in Massachusetts, Larsson graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in mathematics. He also had the distinction of being the state lightweight boxing champion while a Maine resident.
Larsson enlisted in the Navy just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He trained as a naval aviator where he became close friends with Joe Kennedy, the older brother of President John F. Kennedy Jr.
In his many journals from the time, Larsson described his concerns over joining the naval air corps, having a fear of flying and of the water. But he said conquering these fears would help bolster his confidence, just like when he overcame his fear of stepping into the boxing ring.
“Once I almost quit, but I overcame it and went on to win, and it gave me strength and confidence that I had never known before,” he wrote in one journal entry.
Larsson went on to patrol Boston Harbor during World War II. Later, he became a test pilot for the Navy, checking the readiness of new military aircraft.
After leaving the military, Larsson became a professor of mathematics at Clarkson University in Potsdam, where he took a great interest in the success of his students. Each year, he would write their parents to keep them apprised of their progress — and often the families would write back.
“He was very proud his relationship with his students,” recalled Eric Larsson, his eldest son.
Larsson served as dean of instruction at Mohawk Valley Community College during the 1960s. In 1970, he moved to Niskayuna and took a job leading Schenectady County’s newly established community college.
“He was completely devoted to that college,” recalled David Hughes, a retired professor of American history who worked with Larsson for eight years. “And he was a man of great integrity.”
Larsson worked to form partnerships within the county’s business community and initiated one of only two collegewide mandatory cooperative education programs in the nation. He transformed the college to the quarter system to help students distribute their time between work and studies and also initiated the culinary arts and several other programs under his tenure.
College faculty recalled him as a fiscal conservative and a straight shooter — someone who never hesitated to speak his mind. Strianese said there was never any mystery about what he expected from his staff.
“He would tell you exactly what he wanted and he knew what he wanted,” he recalled. “He was very clear with his message to you.”
After he left SCCC, he was a consultant for many other colleges as well as the state Department of Education.
Larsson was also a leader in city affairs. He served as a president of the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce and served on the board of directors of several organizations, including the United Way and local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.
Larsson served as president of the Arts Center & Theatre of Schenectady and was among those who helped save Proctors when it was a crumbling Vaudeville house. He advocated consolidating local government agencies to save money long before the practice gained broader acceptance across the state.
But aside from the acclaim, Larsson was recalled as being a kind father who was attentive to his family’s needs. He stood by his son William, who contracted HIV during the 1980s, when the virus was just starting to be understood by the public; family members said some of his closest friends ostracized him and his wife, but he never wavered on his commitment to his dying son.
“He was this very gentle friendly man who always had a kind word for everyone,” Erik Larsson said.