What’s Up Doc? A Conversation with Professor Doc Lombardi on The Marine Corps, Family, Teaching and Everything In Between
School of Business Distinguished Industry Professor Donald “Doc” Lombardi is a talkative one. He’s quick to laugh — at your jokes and his own — but is all business when it comes to his students, a favorite topic of conversation. In fact, during the first three minutes of an hour-and-a half interview about him, Lombardi mentions nine students by name, rattling off graduate schools and occupations, projects and outcomes. They are his legacy.
Another legacy is his sense of service, particularly that in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he so seamlessly marries with his dedication to his students. Lombardi was instrumental in bringing the Yellow Ribbon Program — an additional funding source for veterans or their dependents, in conjunction with the GI Bill — to Stevens and serves as faculty liaison for the Stevens Veterans Office. He meets with potential students before they’ve committed to Stevens, and he and his authenticity are often the reason they end up doing so.
“I was having a beautiful conversation with one of my favorite people in the world, Dave Lidle, who I met in the Marine Corps. Irish guy from South Chicago, who went on to be a government agent, and now he has a watermelon farm in North Carolina. Anyway, we get on the phone and it feels like it’s 1977 — like time has frozen, y’know? There’s always a jocularity when I’m talking to him but he’s got this divine voice and he said, ‘You know what, Donny? You just keep taking care of those kids.’ And I just said, ‘I will.’ I feel as though I do a good job doing that.”
Proof that he does can be found strewn around his office in the form of photos and tokens of appreciation, relationships maintained far beyond Castle Point.
But there’s more to Lombardi — a lot more — which he so colorfully explains in his own, honest way.
ON THOSE WHO INFLUENCED HIM
He describes his grandmother, Filomena Lombardi, with pure adoration. “She was a human tornado. She went no further than the equivalent of second grade in Italy, and was the best Italian cook.” He explains that she came to the U.S. at 19, eventually opening her own yarn shop on Ditmars Avenue in Queens, New York. “She used to say when one door closes, knock another down,” he says, followed by his signature laugh.
He keeps his grandfather close, too. “They were from the same village in Italy, within a mile, but didn’t meet until they got here. I keep his naturalization (papers) in my day planner to remind me of where I came from.”
Then there’s Gunnery Sergeant Jimmy B. Shells. “He’s built like a 6'4" fire hydrant, with five rows of campaign ribbons, and he talked out the side of his mouth with a Philly accent.” Shells taught Lombardi two important lessons he’s carried with him: “No. 1, you don’t get time back, so don’t waste it; and No. 2, figure out what gifts you’ve got and how to use them to do good. “Shells remains, along with my grandmother, the best teacher I’ve ever had and the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
ON HIS MILITARY SERVICE
Having skipped his senior year of high school, Lombardi was an 18-year-old sophomore at Fordham University, coaching the Fordham JV football team and working as a janitor (“It kept me humble because the students would see me on the field and by the time they’re done washing up, they’d see me mopping the floors,” he laughs.) when he decided to follow in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps and join the Marine Corps.
Lombardi spent the next two summers at Quantico, Virginia, going through bootcamp and learning about military communications and intelligence. A week before that second summer was over, though, the Marine Corps had a proposition for Candidate Lombardi: If he took 24 credits so he could graduate in December, they would make him the youngest officer commissioned that year. He met the challenge and became 2nd Lt. Lombardi on Dec. 19, 1976, which is also his mother’s birthday. (At 20 years and 3 months, he would remain the youngest officer commissioned during the 1970s.)
It was during his service that Lombardi was able to nurture his love of teaching. He developed a program for court-referred Marines (those who had been in some trouble) to get further education, in many cases to earn their GEDs.
“The Marine Corps paid for my master’s and Ph.D. so I extended my time, during which we had 14,000 Marines get their high school diplomas. This was Corps-wide, not just Lejeune (Camp Lejeune, where Lombardi was stationed),” he says, with pride. “I was also teaching basic English at Coastal Carolina Community College in the evenings.”
ON HIS CAREER
After completing his service, Lombardi landed at Cardinal Healthcare in Edison, New Jersey, as the area director of human resources for the Northeast.
“It was difficult to transition back to civilian life because it seemed, at that corporate level, that many folks were more interested in politics than in getting things done. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but I was teaching Psychology of Supervision at Middlesex Community College and I couldn’t wait to get to class. I looked forward to that more than what I was getting the big bucks for.”
From there he went to Bristol-Myers in Syracuse, New York, where he served as director of organizational development & education, but continued teaching night classes at Le Moyne College.
“I finally sprung out of Bristol-Myers, did consulting for a while, went to Seton Hall for 15 years (where he taught business, communication and leadership) and have been here at Stevens for 13, and I love it,” he says. “But I’m glad I did the corporate thing, so I could use this as a basis in teaching, as they’re both Fortune 500 companies.”
These days, Lombardi continues his consulting business, focused on organizational psychology, which his wife Debbie, a former audit control specialist, helps run. He has 48 copyrights and has authored 12 books. (On his latest publication: “This one sold over a thousand copies and if you don’t believe me, check my mother’s basement.”)
ON HIS FAMILY
Speaking of Debbie, Lombardi refers to her as his “secret weapon.” Married 38 years, he says the marriage stays strong because the two have a common sense of humor, righteousness and happiness, all three working together. The humor part is big, though.
“I told her last week, ‘You didn’t get a husband, you got a mission.’ She said, ‘Yeah, mission impossible.’” He cracks up. “We really are buddies and I just can’t say enough about her.”
He tells the story of their honeymoon in Lake Placid, New York, on their $300 budget, almost in disbelief she stuck around all these years. “She’s fabulous.”
Between the two, there are 14 godchildren and a host of nieces and nephews, two nephews living just down the street.
ON WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW (AND PROBABLY WOULDN’T GUESS) ABOUT HIM
“I’m a model railroader.” Lombardi reveals he has a 13'x24' room devoted to his model recreation of Queens, New York — his hometown, born and raised — in the late 1950s and ’60s. “On days when it’s time to depart from the world as we know it — which for me is a couple of days a week — I go up there, close the door and escape. It’s all computerized and it’s super sophisticated, and I tell you, when I’m up there, I couldn’t care what the hell else is going on. I’m lost in that world.” It’s complicated, he says, with six trains running at once. “They smoke and go bananas. It’s great.”
But, as with everything Lombardi, the models connect him to people he cares about. He picked up the hobby from his Uncle Nick, a Jesuit priest and educator at Fordham. “He looks like an Italian version of Neil Diamond. In the good days, of course.”
He’s also used the hobby to bond with his two nephews. Starting the project when one nephew was 2 years old, Lombardi recalled how a couple weeks ago that nephew, now 18, made an off-hand comment that he hadn’t seen the trains in a while. The two spent an hour that day escaping to bygone Queens. Lombardi is also friends with Joe Piscopo. There’s a good story about a fundraiser … ask him when you see him.
ON HIS STUDENTS
Lombardi doesn’t mince words, especially when it comes to his responsibility as an educator. “Here’s my credo: ‘They don’t care about what I know until they know that I care about them.’ If that requires me being tough, I’ll do it because my job is to make them better. At Stevens, we don’t play to play, we play to win.”
He helps his students find their strengths and plays to them so that they build confidence and continue wanting to learn. Lombardi is also a big proponent of experiential learning, whether through Community Outreach, Development and Engagement (CODE) projects or internships. “You learn leadership in the field, beyond the classroom,” he says. “You’ll also learn that managers do things right, but leaders do the right thing.”
And for as much as Lombardi gives to his students, they give back, many volunteering on projects close to Lombardi’s heart, others always reaching out to check in and stay connected. Being a student of Doc’s is a mutually beneficial relationship.
“I tell them, ‘If I write you a recommendation letter and get you a job and you become Doctor insert-last-name-here, that means free healthcare for Doc and Mrs. L.’”
It takes a lot of energy to be Doc Lombardi. It takes even more heart.
“If I can answer positively to three questions every day, it gives me fulfillment:
1. Did I do as much as I could today? 2. Did I learn something new today? 3. Did I work as hard as I could today? And that’s really the best I can do.
“For me, it’s family, faith, the Marine Corps and Stevens. Stevens has really lined up with those first three,” he says. “And if I can have one-tenth the impact on my students that Shells, my parents, my grandmother had on me, then I’ve done a hell of a job.”