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Plaque honoring ex-president roils Bona

A small garden on the St. Bonaventure University campus will bear the name of Robert J. Wickenheiser, the school's controversial former president.

William L. Richter, a university donor and Wickenheiser friend, gave $75,000 for campus landscaping and the garden, and asked that it include a small plaque recognizing Wickenheiser.

The gift has aroused some controversy, particularly among St. Bonaventure alumni.

Wickenheiser, the university's first lay president, was forced to resign in 2003 after allowing an ineligible player to transfer to St. Bonaventure to join the men's basketball team.

The recruiting scandal brought national notoriety to the Franciscan institution, which was removed from NCAA probation last June.

David Whalen, president of St. Bonaventure's alumni chapter in Buffalo, hadn't heard about the plaque, and wasn't sure how many other alums had.

"I think it would be a very unpopular item with many alumni," Whalen said of the plaque. "The scandal was a major issue that still haunts the university today."

Others had stronger words.

Mike Vaccaro, New York Post sports writer and St. Bonaventure graduate, wrote a scathing letter to the campus newspaper, the Bona Venture.

"Shame on Bill Richter for minimizing the anger that still roils among rank-and-file alums and for trying to whitewash a sorry chapter in the university's history," he wrote. "And shame on the university for allowing the lessons that should have been learned in that scandal to instead be bought off by 30 pieces of silver."

Richter said he was not trying to excuse the recruiting scandal, but rather, in a small way, acknowledge Wickenheiser's role in building the campus fitness and recreation center.

Through Wickenheiser, Richter and his wife, Sandra, decided to donate $3 million to build the center, which opened in 2004 and bears their name.

Richter has donated an additional $75,000 for landscaping, which includes the small garden, surrounded by a brick walkway and benches, that was installed near Devereaux and Hopkins halls.

The last of the landscaping will be completed around the Richter Center sometime this spring, when the small plaque will be placed at the garden.

"Even some of his enemies, I think, conceded he did a great many good things, that benefited the university," Richter said. "The university was essentially bankrupt. He was brought in to rescue it. I think it's widely agreed had he not done so, there may not be a St. Bonaventure University today."

Sister Margaret Carney, St. Bonaventure president, said in a statement that she agreed to the plaque because the center was Wickenheiser's idea and he secured a donor to underwrite its construction.

Wickenheiser made a number of improvements at the university, and the way he departed as president shouldn't erase his legitimate achievements, she said.

"As we approach our 150th anniversary, we will be obliged to acknowledge the good done by many past leaders," Carney said, "not all of whom were regarded favorably during their terms in office."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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