What’s in a legacy? MSU General Manager steps down after 22 years

Andrew Mrozowski
May 16, 2024
Est. Reading Time: 10 minutes

A legacy isn’t just about milestones and projects

On Tuesday, March 19, 2024, the full-time staff of the McMaster Students Union had our monthly staff meeting.

As staff joined in-person and virtually, we heard updates about the latest projects by current Board of Directors members, projects that departments were working on, and we started talking about transitions.

After 22 years as general manager of the MSU, John McGowan announced that he would be departing his role in the summer months. Staff members looked shocked, some looked emotional and some looked confused.

After the meeting, I started to wonder about the legacy that McGowan was leaving behind. I started thinking about the Board of Directors that he worked with, their priorities for the year and the milestone projects that McGowan was involved in.

I spoke to board members from 2002 to now, thinking that I would be writing a timeline article about John’s legacy through projects. After talking to about 20 past BoD members, I realized that his legacy was so much more than the projects he was involved in.

2000s — The Big Brother Years

McGowan was hired as general manager of the MSU in February 2002 to succeed then general manager and now-McMaster University Student Centre Administrative Director, Lori Diamond. McGowan came fresh out of the general manager role at Ryesac, Ryerson University’s student union.

“I’m excited about coming to Hamilton to join the MSU on the McMaster campus,” said McGowan in a McMaster Daily News article from 2002. Little did McGowan know that McMaster would become is home for the next 22 years.

 “Big John”, as he was referred to in order to distinguish himself from Vice-President (Administration), John “Little John” Selluski, inherited quite a few large projects right out of the gate.

Not only did he take on the mantle of representing about 14,000 full-time undergraduate students, but also took over the opening of a brand new building on campus, the McMaster University Student Centre. The opening of MUSC coincided with the moving of all MSU services from Hamilton Hall into the new building.

John Popham was the Vice-President (Administration) for the MSU in 2005 and president in 2006. He reflected on his presidential year and how McGowan was integral.

“Our attention focused on the well-being of our staff and students and to continue on with day to day operations. Not the sexiest legacy, but nonetheless John was a rock throughout, offering support to the BoD, staff, and students who needed him the most. Providing sage advice as a sounding board whenever we needed him, including after hours and weekends. If it weren’t for John, that year may have had a very different outcome,” said Popham.

McGowan with the 2005 Board of Directors. C/O Pauline Taggart

Ryan Moran, 2006 VP (Admin) and 2007 president echoed Popham’s sentiments.

“[McGowan] never made anything about him, it was about how he helps you accomplish what you've set out to do. Upon first meeting John, the "oh sh*t" feeling of "what have I just taken on" when I was elected VP Admin melted away, as he was the steady hand that made us feel at ease,” said Moran.

Vishal Tiwari, VP (Education) and President from 2008-2010 spoke to McGowan’s support during challenges Tiwari endured during his year.

"John was a rock throughout, offering support to the BoD, staff, and students who needed him the most,” said Tiwari. “I think if I were to be in his shoes, I would not have the patience or tact to do his job. I think most would fail miserably. It takes a certain type to be able to keep the organization going from year to year.”

Past Board members looked back at their memories with McGowan fondly, and from conversations had with them, you can tell they saw John as an older brother figure. Popham recounted a memory of a BoD retreat to Niagara Falls that illustrated this.

“After a night of strategic planning at the bar, John ducked out early to get some shut eye while Ryan, Drew, and I, visited Clifton Hill. We managed to get a hold of some water guns from a tourist shop, went back to the hotel, busted open the room and opened fire on McGowan, raining down lukewarm hotel water. Needless to say, John took exception to this, shot out of bed with his fists at the ready, as if he were a hockey player about to scrap . . . when he got his wits about him and heard our belly laughs, he (in typical McGowan fashion), took a big gulp of air, told us that we got him good, and went back to bed,” said Popham.

2010s — The Fun Uncle/Dad Years

As the McMaster Students Union journeyed through the dynamic and transformative 2010s, John McGowan emerged as a central figure in its evolution. Initially known as the "Big Brother" of the organization during the preceding decade, McGowan seamlessly transitioned into a role that transcended mere leadership, earning him endearing titles like the "dad" or "uncle" of the MSU. This coincided with McGowan embracing fatherhood himself, further solidifying his place as a mentor and guide within the MSU.

McGowan "training" his newest hire. C/O John McGowan, Facebook.

Reflecting on the early years of the decade, Joseph Finkle, VP (Education) in 2010, fondly reminisced about McGowan's unwavering enthusiasm and patience.

"About 98% of them were unfeasible, costly, or downright foolish but John enthusiastically listened to me, offered help, and kindly explained when something could or could not be done," said Finkle. This sentiment echoed throughout the following years, as McGowan's impact continued to resonate with those he interacted with.

Katie Ferguson, VP (Admin) in 2011, recalled her initial impressions of McGowan, noting not only his dedication to the MSU but also his commitment to his own family.

"My first impression of John was his beaming smile as he stood with his children in a place where he has left an extraordinary mark on the lives of countless student leaders," she remarked.

This intersection of personal and professional values became a hallmark of McGowan's leadership style, influencing countless individuals within the MSU. It’s these values that have shaped the MSU to feel more like a family than the not-for-profit corporation that it is.

As the years progressed, McGowan's role as a mentor and advocate for student leaders became increasingly evident. Siobhan Stewart, who served as President in 2012, attested to McGowan's enduring support and willingness to learn.

"Even when he didn’t understand something I like or didn’t see my perspective, I felt like he often would try his best to learn new things or consider things in a different way," she reflected.

This adaptability and receptiveness to feedback endeared McGowan to the MSU community, fostering a culture of inclusivity and growth.

Shaarujaa Nadarajah, VP (Admin) in 2016, fondly remembered McGowan's approachability and mentorship during her tenure.

"His door was always open. In fact, I rarely have ever seen his door close during my term," she recalled. McGowan's steadfast guidance and empathy empowered student leaders, nurturing personal and professional development within the MSU.

McGowan with Nadarajah and Ryan MacDonald at Student Recognition Night 2018, C/O McMaster Students Union, Facebook.

Throughout the decade, McGowan's instrumental role in project continuity and relationship-building remained unparalleled. Daniel ‘Tuba’ D'Souza, VP (Finance) in 2017, acknowledged McGowan's pivotal contributions, particularly in navigating complex initiatives such as the Student Activity Building project, later renamed to be the HUB.

"He holds a ton of relationships with university administration because he’s been so good after that they actually trust MSU," D'Souza remarked.

This trust and credibility established by McGowan paved the way for meaningful collaborations and advancements within the MSU.

Scott Robinson, VP (Finance) in 2018, reflected on McGowan's profound impact on student experiences at McMaster.

"His impact on thousands of Marauder students, and hundreds of MSU staff was immeasurably positive," he noted.

This sentiment was echoed by Ikram Farah, who served as president in 2018, expressing heartfelt gratitude for McGowan's mentorship and support. "Your wisdom, guidance, and unwavering support have been invaluable, leaving an indelible mark on each of us," Farah said.

Kristina Epifano, VP (Admin) in 2018, emphasized McGowan's leadership during challenging times, highlighting his genuine concern for the well-being of MSU members. "He never failed to check in on how we were doing, he cared about us as people and always reminded us that we are so much more than our jobs," she recalled.

Jess Anderson, VP (Finance) in 2019, credited McGowan for his consistent presence and invaluable advice, particularly during the tumultuous period marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. "During a year of such change and uncertainty, I always knew that you would be a consistent, strong and dependable manager for the MSU," Anderson said.

As the decade ended, it became evident that McGowan had become the glue that bound the MSU together, ensuring the completion of projects and the maintenance of relationships. His unwavering commitment to the MSU solidified his true role as the heart and soul of the organization, leaving an indelible legacy that continues to inspire generations of student leaders.

2020s — The Dad Years and Beyond

Entering the 2020s, John McGowan's presence within McMaster University's sphere extended into a new era defined by his evolving role as a mentor, guide, and father figure within the MSU. Just as the previous decade witnessed his transition from a "Big Brother" to a cherished mentor, McGowan's influence continued to shape the landscape of student leadership and community engagement.

Reflecting on McGowan's impact, Mitchell German, VP (Admin) for 2022-23 and later assumed the role of MSU Student Life Director, emphasized McGowan’s unwavering commitment to student advocacy. German highlighted how McGowan's daily efforts were dedicated to championing student interests and fostering a vibrant campus community.

"Every day that John worked at the MSU, he fought and advocated for students," German said.

Similarly, Sarphina Chui, VP (Finance) for 2022-23, echoed the sentiment of McGowan's influential mentorship. Chui described McGowan as an "incredible mentor," emphasizing his pivotal role in revitalizing campus life following the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"John's guidance and support were instrumental in steering the MSU through the process of reinvigorating campus activities, food and beverage operations, and in-person services," Chui explained.

Elizabeth Wong, VP (Education) for 2022-2023, reflected on McGowan's enduring impact, drawing parallels between his leadership style and the nurturing qualities of a father figure. Wong recalled McGowan's ability to create a supportive environment where student leaders felt empowered to thrive.

"John's leadership, characterized by wisdom and compassion, played a pivotal role in rebuilding the organizational culture post-pandemic," Wong said.

Adam El-Kadi, current VP (Admin), reflected on his initial interactions with McGowan, describing him as a guiding presence amidst the uncertainties of student leadership.

"John's ability to foster open dialogue and provide guidance to a new generation of student leaders underscored his role as a trusted advisor and confidant," El-Kadi said.

Jovan Popovic, current MSU President, emphasized McGowan's unparalleled contributions to the MSU, spanning over two decades. Popovic highlighted McGowan's instrumental role in navigating the challenges of executive turnover and ensuring the continuity of projects and relationships within the organization.

"John's enduring presence served as a beacon of stability, fostering a cohesive and supportive environment for student leaders to thrive," Popovic said.

Although we are only about halfway through the 2020s, McGowan continued the work that he started from the previous two decades and left a lasting impact on recent board members. It’s quite fitting that we end this section with the opening MSU’s newest building, the HUB. A career bookended by the opening of arguably the two most used buildings on McMaster’s campus.

Looking Past “Bricks and Mortar”

John McGowan has had such an illustrious career with the McMaster Students Union. From MUSC to the HUB, he has been involved in just about every major decision affecting student life from the MSU perspective.

But more importantly, the legacy that McGowan leaves behind is not tied to a milestone. It’s the impact that he has had on every Board member, every staff member, and every student touched by the MSU. McGowan has made a difference on all of our lives, whether you are aware of it or not.

McGowan, University Adminstration and the 2018 Board of Directors at THE HUB Groundbreaking ceremony, C/O McMaster Daily News.

As we bid farewell to McGowan, the heart and soul of the MSU for the past 22 years, the echoes of gratitude and admiration from those whose lives he touched resonated deeply.

Popham eloquently captured the essence of McGowan's legacy, describing him as an "all-around good guy," whose presence, patience, and understanding shaped the very fabric of the MSU. Without McGowan's calming influence and acumen, Popham reflected, the MSU would have been a vastly different place, perhaps even "much worse off."

Tiwari echoed this sentiment, expressing a profound sense of loss with McGowan's departure. Tiwari's hope that McGowan's replacement could learn from him underscored the unique and irreplaceable nature of his contribution to the MSU.

Finkle, in heartfelt gratitude, acknowledged McGowan as the "dad of the MSU," whose unwavering dedication and support had improved the lives of thousands of McMaster students. Ferguson concurred, emphasizing that while a new MSU General Manager might soon step into the role, for her, McGowan would forever remain the heart of the MSU.

Stewart reflected on McGowan's vocation, recognizing his role as a shepherd for countless MSU boards past. His enduring legacy, she suggested, lay not merely in his job but in a calling he had embraced wholeheartedly.

Farah acknowledged McGowan's enduring legacy, woven into the very fabric of MSU culture. She expressed hope that his influence would continue to shape the organization's approach to challenges and collaboration for years to come.

Anderson, in a testament to McGowan's character, described him as one of the kindest, most genuine managers she had ever had the privilege to work with. His consistency and dependability, particularly during times of uncertainty, had left an indelible mark on all who had had the honor of knowing him.

Robinson offered a poignant image of McGowan taking a moment to reflect on the campus from atop the University Hall Tower, symbolizing the positive impact he had had on thousands of Marauders throughout his tenure.

Chui expressed profound gratitude for the opportunity to experience the "John McGowan legend" firsthand, highlighting his unwavering commitment to uplifting student voices and believing in their visions.

Finally, Popovic articulated a sentiment shared by many: that people like McGowan came far and few between. Popovic considered it a privilege to have worked alongside McGowan, learning from him and striving to become the best version of himself.

As we reflect on McGowan's remarkable journey with the MSU, we are reminded not only of his profound impact but also of the enduring legacy of compassion, dedication, and leadership he leaves behind.

El-Kadi left the Silhouette with a poem about McGowan.

In the garden of the MSU,
John tends to the seedlings of Board and staff with care, deep and true.

With the firm yet gentle considerations of a father, he guides us to light,
Nurturing our growth, from morning till night.

He bends with our needs, like a willow, so wise,
Understands without words and hears lots of cheers and cries.

In his garden, each seed uniquely does grow,
John, the gardener, helps us to glow.

So, here's to our dear John, whose love does not tire,
Lighting in young hearts, a lasting fire.

With patience and love, he's sculpted an everlasting legacy,
In the garden of the MSU, he's a gardener with delicacy.


  • Andrew Mrozowski

    Andrew has worked his way up the ranks. As Executive Editor of the Silhouette, he strives to ensure the Silhouette is giving a platform to marginalized communities or voices that need to be amplified. When he's not managing the paper's business side, he's likely out adventuring somewhere...yes, that's very Hobbit-esque, we know.

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