RICHLAND — Jerry Finnigan, a leader in Tri-City higher education, has died at the age of 86.
He was the dean of the institution that became Washington State University Tri-Cities, helping to make it a branch campus and secure the $12.7 million needed to construct the university's West Building in Richland.
But those who grew up in the Tri-Cities might be more familiar with him in his role as the dean of magic. Often wearing a top hat, tuxedo and red cummerbund with matching bow tie, Finnigan put on magic shows for free for groups such as the United Way, Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls and The Arc of the Tri-Cities.
"He was just the most enthusiastic guy I ever met," said Kirk Williamson, a fellow member of the Kiwanis Club of Tri-Cities Industry. "He never met anyone he didn't like or who didn't like him."
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Finnigan, whose full name was Jerome Woodruff Finnigan, came to the Tri-Cities in 1950 to work for General Electric Co., then the Department of Energy's Hanford contractor. By 1981, he was using his doctorate in chemical engineering to direct special projects for Battelle-Northwest in Richland.
That was the year he was picked to lead the Joint Center for Graduate Education, which offered graduate programs in science and engineering through WSU, the University of Washington and Oregon State University to help Hanford workers advance their education. In 1985 it became Tri-Cities University Center, and Finnigan continued as dean.
He retired in 1989 at the age of 65 when WSU assumed control of the institution. During his eight years of leadership, enrollment doubled to more than 900 students, and the staff also doubled.
"I am a selfish Tri-Citian, and I will do whatever I can so it will prosper and grow," Finnigan said when he retired. "I want this someday to be the biggest and best. There's no reason we can't rival the parent campus in size.
"If we are truly WSU, we will presumably be able to expand our scope when resources are available, and that means the Legislature will have to give more money," he said.
When the 88,000-square-foot addition was dedicated in 1991, a Herald editorial credited Finnigan as being in at the beginning of the effort to convert the former higher education consortium in Richland into a true branch campus.
Finnigan said it had been almost 10 years to the day when he asked for planning money to build the addition.
John Yegge, another fellow Kiwanian, remembers Finnigan making almost weekly trips to the west side of the state to win support for expanding the university.
Finnigan also served on numerous community boards, including serving as Battelle's loaned executive in 1983 as president of an effort to create a world-class energy fair in the Tri-Cities.
The effort failed, but during the year Finnigan was in charge he was a masterful magician for the project, Williamson said.
Just as a magician uses misdirection or slight of hand, Finnigan would seem not to notice what was going wrong and then quietly fix it when no one was looking, Williamson said.
Finnigan became fascinated with magic at the age of 10 and continued to put on magic shows into his 80s.
"I like colorful stage magic. I like silks and flowers," he said in a 1986 Herald interview. "It brings out the ham in me."
His wife, Nancy, worked behind the scenes, and sometimes he would recruit his daughter Carol to help on stage.
He put on a good show, Yegge said. But then Finnigan was always well prepared for whatever he did, he said.
Finnigan died Monday at Wynwood of Columbia Edgewater in Richland.