Already set on a career in filmmaking, he arrived at the College after heeding the advice of friends who suggested he get a liberal arts education and some life experience rather than enter film school. “Skidmore allowed me to do both,” he says. The theater major minored in English and spent his junior year in London, where he interned as an assistant to the director of London’s Theatre Royal. “The experience was a huge influence on my mindset and how I view the world,” Kennedy recalls. He also has vibrant memories of a film class taught by Professor of English Bob Boyers. “We analyzed high art films such as Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, breaking them down piece by piece in class and in personal journals. Thanks to Bob’s wonderful mind, we were presented with a unique way of looking at cinema, one that has had a powerful and lasting impact on how I approach filmmaking. I still use journaling as a tool to improve my own work,” he notes.
After graduating with honors, Kennedy made his directorial debut shooting an AIDS public service announcement, then honed his craft doing music videos for such artists as Jimmy Cliff, a promo with Tony Bennett, corporate work for clients including CBS and Nabisco, and second-unit work with Showtime movies Last Exit to Earth and Seawolf. Kennedy went on to serve as associate producer and second unit director of How to Make the Cruelest Month, a comedy that was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Yet he felt the pull to create his own narrative film—“a movie with heart and soul, a movie that tells a great story that is ‘about something.’” The opportunity presented itself in a “perfect storm” of circumstances in 2001, when quality filmmaking equipment started becoming more affordable and Kennedy’s girlfriend (now wife), Catherine Borek, suggested a remarkable idea. A high school teacher at Dominguez High School, located in the troubled Compton section of Los Angeles, CA, she was mounting the school’s first theater production in 20 years, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The play was being undertaken without money, a stage, or any theatrical experience. Kennedy agreed to chronicle the process, and the result was his 2002 debut documentary, OT: Our Town. His camera follows 24 black and Latino youths as they grapple with the unfamiliar world of Wilder’s turn-of-the-century, small-town New England on a makeshift stage (a cafeteria), as well as the trials and tragedies they encounter outside of rehearsal. As the students make the play their own, their experiences of love, loss, suffering, joy, and transcendence reveal themselves as universal. In OT: Our Town, Kennedy shatters stereotypes and reaffirms the transformative power of art in the lives of people wherever they live. The film garnered much critical acclaim and was included on several “best of” lists, including those of Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and Moira Macdonald of the Seattle Times, who called it “a glowing demonstration of the power of language, art, and community.”
Awarded the jury prize for Best Documentary by the Los Angeles Film Festival, OT: Our Town also captured Best Documentary at the Santa Monica Film Festival and earned Audience Award honors at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and Aspen Filmfest. It was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. The film, along with the teachers and students of Dominguez, also earned a Human and Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association. OT: Our Town was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination and was an official selection at other top film festivals around the world. Kennedy screened the film at Skidmore in 2003.
His second film, The Garden, released in 2008, explores issues of equality and justice as it documents efforts to save a 14-acre community garden created in South Central Los Angeles in the wake of riots that rocked that city in 1992. The largest urban garden in the country, it was an oasis in one of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods, built and tended largely by Latin American immigrants to provide food for their families. After the city sells the surrounding land to a developer for millions less than fair market value in a closed-door deal, local citizens struggle against a power structure that is determined to bulldoze the urban jewel. In The Garden, Kennedy illuminates the challenges to equal justice in a society in which race, class, money, and power are driving forces. Selected as Best Documentary at the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs and Camden International Film Festivals, it captured the Audience Award at the Florida Film Festival. The Los Angeles Times hailed the film as “a potent human drama that serves as a case study in how hardball politics is played and why it is so difficult to take on the system.” The Garden was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009. Shown around the country, including at the 2009 Skidmore Film Festival, the film made its European premiere in 2010.
Kennedy’s most recent work, Fame High, follows two groups of students—freshmen and seniors—at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts during one school year as they try to become successful actors, singers, dancers, and musicians. It premiered to sold-out audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Kennedy traces the impetus for making this kind of documentary to his time studying theater and musicals at Skidmore. “I come from a love of the performing arts, and in Fame High, I’m looking to mix those worlds: the raw vérité of a documentary film and the magical vocabulary of musicals and music videos.” Although Fame High is a departure from the sociopolitical themes examined in his previous documentaries, Kennedy says he hopes to “capture the same depth in the soul of the characters. That’s what intrigues me: how we live life on this planet being generous and empathetic.”
He advises aspiring filmmakers to follow his career path to “tell your story—bring your point of view to the work.” He also strongly recommends they seek out internships (he encourages anyone coming to Los Angeles to contact him at his production company, Black Valley Films). “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the internship process,” he says. “Working on small independent films is a wonderful process that can provide great learning opportunities; in turn, filmmakers benefit from the energy young people can bring. The excitement in the eyes of interns is inspiring.”
Kennedy’s generosity in helping cultivate a new generation of filmmakers is matched by his gratitude. He admits he was surprised to be recognized by his alma mater. “Aside from the fact that Skidmore needs to raise its standards,” he quips, “it was a big honor.” He says, “The College, with its talented faculty and students, had a tremendous influence on me. To be honored by an institution that gave me so much is incredibly humbling.”
Recognizes an alumna/us who has made a demonstrated contribution through innovation and/or creation of a fresh approach that inspires or enlightens the lives of others and contributes to the greater good. This contribution may have been made in the scope of the award winner’s career, community work, government, or volunteer service. Throughout Skidmore’s history, the College has challenged itself to make no small plans—to make no ordinary choices—and this award recognizes an alumna/us who purposely demonstrates this belief in his or her life and work.
Educator Jane Baldwin Henzerling ’97 recalls the moment she knew she wanted to be a Spanish major. A student in Professor Patricia Rubio’s Spanish 212 class, she listened as Rubio led a discussion of Luisa Valenzuela’s Cambio de armas, which describes the oppression of women by the military regime that held power in Argentina in the late 1970s and early ’80s. “The challenging ideas in the text and her questions provoked a visceral response—I could feel my heart pounding in my chest,” Henzerling relates. She says her Skidmore education taught her to view the status quo through “a critical lens” that helped her develop insights into issues of social inequity, particularly in regard to education. Founder and head of school of the Mission Preparatory School, a K–8 public charter school that primarily serves children in San Francisco’s low-income communities, Henzerling is committed to “ensuring that every child has access to high-quality education and a real chance at self-determination.”
The summa cum laude graduate earned departmental honors and was awarded the Sonja P. Karsen Prize in Spanish. She then left to study Spanish literature, on fellowship, at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, for a semester. “I became increasingly aware of how fortunate I was to be able to earn a college degree while other young people, who just happened to be dealt a different hand, were struggling to graduate from high school,” she notes. Henzerling decided to use her education to help others achieve and took a position as a bilingual elementary school teacher in Phoenix, AZ. There she also designed and implemented a K–8 alternative language program for English learners and developed staff training courses in topics including bilingual teaching methods and English language acquisition. One particularly memorable day, she learned that one of her former students was admitted to Arizona State University on a full scholarship.
In 2003, Henzerling took advantage of an opportunity to serve as program director in Phoenix for Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits young college graduates to teach in underserved areas. The following year, she was offered the position of executive director of the organization’s Miami-Dade County division, where she oversaw a corps of 100 teachers working with students in the county’s lowest-performing schools. Under her leadership, the number of teachers effecting significant academic gains (helping students progress at least 1.5 grade levels in a given year) doubled. Partnering with community businesses and nonprofits, she dramatically increased community awareness and support for the organization. Those efforts garnered Henzerling a string of accolades, including a Miami Today Gold Medal Award, a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce NOVO Award for nonprofit innovation, and a South Florida Business Journal Heavy Hitter in Education citation, all in 2006. In 2007, she was honored with a Florida Marlins Heart of the Community Award.
Yet Henzerling, who had completed a master’s in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University, remained inspired by the continued successes and struggles of her former students in Phoenix. She became determined to find a way to help launch other children from underprivileged backgrounds onto the path toward a college education. “I wanted to return to the one-on-one relationships with students and their families and apply my professional experience to serve them in a more direct way,” she recalls.
She began researching opportunities to realize her dream. In 2009, after moving to San Francisco, CA, she was awarded a fellowship with Building Excellent Schools, a yearlong incubator program that would help her create and lead an urban charter school in that city. She began the formidable process of drawing up a charter petition, identifying and working with stakeholders, and recruiting students.
In 2011, with help from community agencies, nonprofits, and neighborhood families, Henzerling established Mission Preparatory, a public college-prep charter school located in the city’s Excelsior community. The school offers area children, largely from Latino immigrant families, a rigorous K–8 curriculum. Students are selected by a lottery and attend tuition-free. The school and its staff maintain an intense focus on cultivating literacy, high behavioral standards, and leadership skills. There is also a firm conviction that college readiness begins the day students enter Mission Prep. The school’s first 50 kindergarteners, already referred to as the college Class of 2028, take field trips to area colleges and universities. “I think that really believing in every child’s potential is fundamental to all of us working in education,” Henzerling says. “That’s what’s driving everything I do.” Her dedication to making Mission Prep a reality earned her a place on 7x7SF magazine’s Hot 20 list in 2011.
She credits her Skidmore education for giving her the tools to achieve success in her field. “Majoring in Spanish ensured I developed the language skills as well as the cultural capacity to connect with and relate to the Latino communities I have served as a teacher and school leader over the past 15 years,” she says. “A deeper understanding of and respect for the traditions and histories of immigrant families have been integral to my capacity to collaborate with them to improve educational outcomes for their children. More broadly, a strong grounding in the liberal arts expanded my intellectual capacity and my content knowledge, two essential ingredients for any educator. It also gave me well-founded confidence in writing, debating, analyzing complex issues, and persevering in the face of adversity.”
Creativity also continues to play a critical role in her work. It’s “the tool that enables me to sustain my commitment to educational equity by consistently finding ways to work through the myriad obstacles that stand in the way of improving schools and expanding opportunity for underserved children,” Henzerling says. “Figuring out a new strategy to help a child when nothing else has worked takes creativity. Operating a school with an extended school day and year, while offering competitive salaries to attract and retain effective teachers in one of the most expensive cities in the country—in a state that ranks 49th in per-pupil funding—takes creativity. Simply put, forging ahead with a vision for a different kind of school to meet the needs of children who, year after year, are failing in the current system, takes a constant stream of creativity—and plenty of smart, supportive people to help feed the flow of ideas.”
She is extremely proud of her students’ achievements, both those she taught in Phoenix—many of whom are now engaged in successful academic and professional careers—and those at Mission Prep, “who amaze us every day with their progress, hard work, and new ideas.”
Henzerling’s pride in her students is matched by a “deep appreciation” for her alma mater. “I feel an ongoing connection to the College as I see how my years there equipped me to pursue this professional path, and as I continue relationships with many faculty members who still serve as trusted advisors and mentors. Being recognized by Skidmore is humbling, particularly knowing how many graduates are out in the world doing amazing work and making an impact through their creativity and critical thinking.”
In addition to her work at Mission Prep, Henzerling serves as a member of the Equity Advisory Committee on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the Mission Peace Collaborative. She is a former Skidmore class fund chair and admissions contact.
For Mollie Klee Heron ’62, creating and nurturing community is a way of life. The retired teacher, businesswoman, and museum docent has built an impressive career in community service for a diverse range of organizations and institutions, including her alma mater.
Her says she learned the value of serving others from her parents—especially her father, who was active with the local YMCA and housing board. “Dad believed strongly that everyone deserves a fair shake,” she recalls. Her parents also passed along to her their own deep religious faith. “The messages contained in my favorite Bible verse, Matthew 25:34–40, drove home the value of giving of oneself, especially to those less fortunate. In many ways, it became the roadmap for my life.” At Skidmore, Heron says, she found a robust sense of community that allowed her to express those values in her own way. She was president of the Religious Affairs Council, a student organization that hosted speaker programs on wide-ranging interfaith topics every Sunday at the campus chapel. She also taught Sunday school at a local church.
Heron majored in psychology as preparation for a career in teaching. She went on to attend Youngstown College to become certified to teach students in grades K–8. Married just a year after graduation, she embarked on her professional career with a year’s stint as a teacher in a tough inner-city public school in Pittsburgh, PA. She then took a position teaching blind and disabled students at Pittsburgh’s School for the Blind, a job she says she “adored.” She has fond memories of helping a boy named Johnny finally master writing his name, and she still maintains close ties with the school’s staff.
She left that profession to raise a family, which now includes three children with spouses and nine grandchildren. Meanwhile, her volunteer career kicked into high gear. She began serving the College as a class agent and volunteer for the Wide Horizons Campaign and later became class secretary, which suited her gregarious and gracious nature. “Nurturing relationships with people has always been very important to me,” she observes. In 1992, she joined the planning committee for her 30th reunion, using her powers of persuasion to convince classmates to return for Reunion in record numbers. Heron’s skills did not go unnoticed, and that year she was elected class president. Her efforts lay the groundwork for her work as chair of her 35th reunion. Once again, she helped galvanize the class to achieve unprecedented attendance and giving levels.
She went on to serve as class fund chair, and in 2005, she was invited to join the National Friends of the Presidents Committee. In honor of her 45th reunion in 2007, she spearheaded efforts to fund the Class of 1962 Term Professorship held by Professor of Chemistry Ray Giguere, originator of the Molecules That Matter exhibit featured at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery that year. The exhibit, an interdisciplinary exploration of how 10 key molecules have influenced cultural, scientific, and economic aspects of 20th-century life, was an important contribution to the Tang’s mission. Thanks to the professorship, Giguere was able to continue his work and share the exhibit with audiences nationwide. Again, Heron’s fundraising expertise simultaneously placed 1962 firmly in the top tier of reunion class giving, both in participation and amount. She was elected to a second term as class president, which she continues today, along with her role as chair of her 50th reunion.
Even if one’s best friends are not attending Reunion, “it’s important to come anyway,” Heron tells classmates. “I always make new friends. Reading the class histories allows me to see what people are involved in now so that I more easily connect with them.” She says it’s equally important to return to honor classmates who are no longer with us. When dear friend and former roommate Val Hunt Schmidt ’67 passed away 15 years ago, it made Heron’s journey back to Skidmore even more meaningful.
Her involvement with the Skidmore community has been both intimate and multifarious. Over the years, she has frequently offered her Maine summer home for Skidmore gatherings, and she has been a familiar and welcoming presence at FOP receptions, scholarship dinners, and campaign events. In 2009, she contributed her voice to a New York City “town hall” meeting on Skidmore’s future and also joined the College’s Alumni Travel Program trip to Antarctica.
Yet Skidmore isn’t the only beneficiary of her commitment to community building. When Heron and her husband moved to Lexington, KY, in the mid-1970s, she recalls, “I didn’t know a soul.” To remedy that, she joined a local embroidery guild. When the first Toyota automobile plant arrived in the area, Heron founded a quilting group that brought together the wives of Japanese auto executives and their American hosts. She still visits members of that group in Japan. Now an accomplished quilter, Heron belongs to a well-known group of textile artists called the Kentucky Six. She shared her work with the College community at the 2002 Reunion Art Exhibition.
Her twin passions for art and education also prompted Heron to volunteer as a docent at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, a position she “enjoyed enormously” for more than 10 years. “For many of the children, it was the one hour of art history they would experience in their lives,” she recalls. During that time, she began participating in Art in Bloom, a program that enlists community members to interpret works of art through floral design. Heron currently directs the museum’s annual fundraising event.
She has also given of her time and treasure to a host of other organizations. She is a driver for the Independent Transportation Network, a local group that helps individuals unable to drive themselves. She serves on numerous boards, including those governing the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, Duncan Machinery Movers, Planned Parenthood, and Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust in Maine. She also makes quilts for charities, friends, and family. “Working with other people on all levels makes life very rich,” she notes. “It truly is better to give than to receive.”
Honored to be receiving this award, Heron says it’s validation that “giving of yourself and being involved in community is worth something. I have certainly given financially, but I believe giving of one’s time and energy is just as critical. Moreover, I have always liked being a class volunteer, because talking to my classmates and encouraging them to attend Reunion and support the school I love is, simply put, fun.”
Virginia Miller Lyon ’47 is a dedicated Skidmore volunteer and consummate fundraiser. The pragmatic business major (who admits she has “a fiercely competitive streak” when it comes to rallying classmates in support of Skidmore) has relied heavily on her creative side to mobilize classmates—with heart and humor—for more than a decade.
Married 13 days after graduating from Skidmore, Lyon spent the next 25 years raising four children, volunteering in her community, and traveling. She also cultivated an interest in art and design after taking oil painting and pottery classes. “I instantly became addicted to clay,” she recalls. Lyon constructed a ceramics studio on her property in the 1970s, making and selling pottery for more than 20 years.
After Bob, her husband of 42 years, passed away in 1989, her twin sister, Mary Miller Solari ’47, and younger sister Nancy Miller Dunphy ’49 moved near her in Green Valley, AZ. The trio started attending Skidmore reunions in the 1990s and were hooked. “We had no idea of the fun we had been missing all of those years,” Lyon observes. They became involved as College volunteers and began contributing to the Annual Fund. At their 55th reunion in 2002, after some arm-twisting from classmates, the twins signed on as co-fund chairs for the Class of 1947. “We felt it was high time for us to get involved and give back something to Skidmore,” says Lyon.
Over the next five years, Virginia and Mary launched a formidable effort to increase class participation in the Annual Fund, spending countless hours developing new ways to reach out to classmates and motivate them through inventive correspondence. One of the first brainstorms was a class letter with a stick of Doublemint gum taped to it, accompanied by a humorous poem instructing readers to chew the gum (or, if they had false teeth, give it away) and send a check. It was signed by “the Doublemint Twins.” They were very proud of the fact that their class remained among the top few in percentage of participation.
Sadly, both of Lyon’s sisters passed away in 2007. Despite the loss, she has soldiered on, helping her class achieve top participation levels over the years; in 2011, they hit an impressive 81 percent. Her success owes much to the unique way she draws classmates to the cause with creativity, wit, humor—and a lot of hard work. She enlisted the Class of ’47 to help provide the College with enough donors to meet the Williamson Challenge (which resulted in a $1 million gift) in 2010. She made the pitch in a card topped with an elephant refrigerator magnet admonishing classmates not to forget to make a gift to the Annual Fund. In 2011, she designed a similar reminder card that featured a hand with the index finger extended, then hand-tied a piece of string around the finger for more than 80 cards sent to classmates. Lyon is also well known for crafting clever poetry designed to pique classmate interest and participation in attending Reunion and helping Skidmore meet its fundraising goals:
It’s me again with two requests.
Donate to the Annual Fund drive.
Then make your plans to attend
our Reunion number Sixty-five.
Skidmore’s needs are as great as ever,
salaries, scholarships, maintenance et al.
Contribute now, no matter the size,
save our loyal Class Agents a call.
Her determination to serve Skidmore is as boundless as her creativity.
“One of my self-imposed challenges is to engage those classmates who haven’t been interested in supporting the College,” Lyon says. If I could only convince them of the fulfillment they could experience by giving—that they could feel half as good as I do when I do something for Skidmore—I am sure they could be persuaded to participate. I am continually working on this.”
Driven by her competitive spirit, Lyon is determined to propel 1947 to the number-one spot in percentage of donor participation among all classes. She is particularly focused on achieving this goal in honor of her 65th reunion. That focus is coupled with much gratitude for the generosity of her fellow ’47ers. Achieving 81 percent participation last year, she says, “made me extremely proud of the cooperation I have enjoyed from my classmates.”
She shares her creativity with classmates in other ways, too. To mark her 60th reunion in 2007, she submitted a hand-formed necklace and earrings to the Alumni Reunion Art Exhibition. This year, she is exhibiting a leather picture of an Indian maiden and a clay statue of an Indian storyteller doll, inspired by Southwestern Native American designs.
Lyon has vivid memories of her college days that she continues to hold dear. “I remember singing Christmas carols in front of President Moore’s home one winter evening,” she says. “We pinned pillowcases around our heads and held lighted candles under our chins—we looked like angels.”
She also cherishes her Skidmore family connections. Her mother, Dorothy Wilson Miller ’19, was a very proud graduate of the Skidmore School of Arts. And when her daughters were born, “all three of us were destined to attend Skidmore,” Lyon says.
Her affection for Skidmore makes being recognized by the College all the more gratifying. “This award demonstrates that Skidmore really does care and appreciate the work of its volunteers. This award is truly an honor I am most proud to receive.”
Joan Firmery '57
As a high school student,Joan Firmery ’57 knew exactly what she wanted: to acquire the skills and knowledge to become a home economics teacher. The Long Island resident, who had developed a keen interest and considerable talent in sewing, had serendipitously heard about Skidmore while participating in Girl Scouts with the younger sister of Arline Fisch ’52. She did some research and decided there was no reason to consider other schools—Skidmore was the perfect fit. Happily for Joan and for the College, her instincts were spot on. She discovered the rigorous curriculum and friendly environment she was looking for, as well as a culture of community service that reinforced values she learned at home. A prolific volunteer, Firmery has enjoyed a mutually rewarding relationship with her alma mater ever since.At Skidmore, Firmery’s aptitude for home economics was nurtured in small classes by a caring faculty who “modeled a love for what they were doing.” The quality of their instruction and guidance left her well prepared to pursue a master’s from SUNY-Plattsburgh and land her dream job as a home economics teacher in the South Huntington School District on Long Island, launching a career she enjoyed for 34 years. The broad liberal arts curriculum, notes Firmery, was indispensible to her success as an educator. “In life you are not operating in a vacuum within your own discipline. In teaching, I often needed to access material from other subject areas. For example, methods of food preparation can vary across cultures, and I knew how to bring cultural studies into the lesson.” She says the one-on-one interaction with professors was key to her academic and personal growth. Firmery continues to maintain a close relationship with former Skidmore Home Economics Professor Isabelle Koehler, now in her 90s, and is delighted when she hears of students developing similar bonds with faculty.
Among her most vivid memories are enjoying Happy Pappy Weekends with her father and pulling her freshman bib out of the ceremonial bonfire before it burned. Another influential experience was community service, which was required of all students. Firmery waited tables at the dining hall and learned the value of doing something for others without the expectation of compensation. She has continued to honor that practice on behalf of the College throughout her life.A longtime class agent and reunion volunteer, she deepened her commitment to serving Skidmore after her retirement in 1991. By 1997, she was on board as class fund chair for her 40th reunion, and in 1999, she joined the Reunion Giving Program Advisory Committee, where she helped coordinate and cheer on class agents and fund chairs charged with obtaining reunion gifts. Firmery did a stint as a member of the alumni board’s Nominating Committee in 2000, assisting the board with identifying and cultivating new leaders. In 2002, she signed on as class president for the five years leading up to her 50th reunion in 2007, adding the role of reunion chair in 2006. A staunch believer in the power of personal contact, Firmery spent countless hours on the phone “having real conversations” with classmates, encouraging them to attend and send in their class history submissions to honor the milestone event. Together with a team that included Friends of the Presidents chair Marge O’Meara Storrs, fund chair Betty Hartz Hewitt, and class historian Mary “Chick” Glassey Ehbrecht, Firmery helped galvanize classmates to attend the 50th in record numbers. She notes, “I was thrilled by the number of classmates there who had never before attended Reunion, as well as those who had and said it was the best ever.” The trio reprises those roles for their 55th. One of the great aspects of her Skidmore experience, says Firmery, are the friendships cultivated as a student that have endured over the years. “When we see one another at reunions, we simply pick up where we left off. It’s like no time has elapsed.”
She says she is motivated to give back to Skidmore because she both enjoys volunteering and feels compelled to give back to an institution that “gave me so much.” She is particularly concerned with helping students from middle-class families, who may earn too much to qualify for some forms of aid but not enough to afford tuition at a private college. To address the needs of these students, she established the Elsa and Arthur Firmery Endowed Scholarship in 2006 in honor of her parents. “I was the first in my middle-income family to attend college,” she notes. “My father left school at age 16 to work, and my mother, who had always yearned to be a teacher, had to drop out of school in the eighth grade to help support her family. After she passed away, my brother and I thought a scholarship would be a fitting tribute to our parents. It’s an opportunity for me to help other young people have the same positive experience at Skidmore that I did.”Skidmore isn’t the only recipient of her dedication to serving others. For decades, Firmery was involved in providing sewing and crafting services at a nursing home. She has also volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, local designer-home charity showcases, and area prom boutiques that provide formal wear to high school students who could not otherwise afford it. As treasurer of the New York State affiliate of the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences (AAFCS), she stays active in the organization. In 2011, she was a member of a panel that presented an educational session titled “Exploring and Celebrating Volunteerism” at the AAFCS Annual Conference and Expo.
Firmery, who says it took time to accept being recognized by her alma mater simply for doing something she enjoys, is nonetheless deeply gratified. “It’s a great honor, especially knowing that there are many other people who are deserving of this award. I think what makes it especially meaningful is the fact that I was nominated by my peers; that my classmates felt I was worthy of this recognition is very special to me.”
The benefits of a solid, liberal arts education are not lost on New York City resident Christine Wilsey Goodwin ’67. An economics major, she says, “Skidmore gave me the tools and confidence to go to work in the financial industry, which, in 1967, was just opening up to women. When I was a sophomore, I took Econ 101 to fulfill a requirement, and it was like a lightbulb going on—that aha moment when things made sense to me, and I knew this was the area I wanted to study.”
After graduation, Goodwin took a job on Wall Street with Scudder, Stevens & Clark, a money management firm, and then joined the investment banking department of E.F. Hutton, where she worked until 1973 when she left to raise a family. In 1987, she earned an MBA from Columbia University Graduate School of Business. She worked as a tax manager for Ernst & Young (specializing in the not-for-profit industry) and for Time Warner (corporate tax compliance) and later joined PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she was a corporate tax accountant until her retirement in 2008. Since then she has served as a Tax Aide volunteer for AARP, preparing individuals’ federal and state tax returns.
In other activities, Goodwin was on the board of trustees of the Unitarian Church of All Souls and has been treasurer of the Heart & Soul Charitable Fund. Her service to Skidmore includes more than a decade as class fund co-chair and previous involvement as chair of the Friends of the Presidents Committee and class FOP chair. As a member of the 35th Reunion Committee in 2002, she helped raise money to dedicate the renovated lobby in Palamountain Hall in honor of the Class of ’67. For her 40th reunion in 2007, she was part of the team that raised funds to create the Class of 1967 Professorship (held by Professor of Spanish and Associate Dean of the Faculty Patricia Rubio).
Goodwin is proud of having “encouraged people to support Skidmore and stay connected,” she says. “We have a great class and enjoy getting together.” The best part of volunteering, she adds, is “reconnecting with my classmates,” whether they are old friends or others she’s gotten to know more recently.
She also regularly attends FOP receptions and club events in New York City. In 2009, she attended the “town hal” meetings that enlisted alumni, parents, and friends of the College to help chart Skidmore’s future. And she’s remained engaged in other ways too, such as participating in a Skidmore Alumni Travel Program voyage to the Amazon in 2007, a trip she describes as “fabulous and amazing—one of the best I’ve ever been on.”
Looking back on her student years, Goodwin says her most vivid memories include President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the ice storm of 1964, the blackout of 1965, and moving to the new campus in 1966. Other memories include the chance to hear speakers like Senator Bobby Kennedy, peace activist William Sloane Coffin Jr., and Buckminster Fuller, and to see performances by the Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham dance groups.
Goodwin says she’s always enjoyed attending Reunion and loves visiting Saratoga and Skidmore. Her son Alexander ’96 gave her another good reason to visit campus—and the opportunity to “see the school through his experience and appreciate Skidmore as a parent.” She was “thrilled when he wanted to go to Skidmore. He intended to be a business major but fell in love with creative writing instead. That’s the whole point of a liberal arts education—you discover things you didn’t know before.”
Honored to be receiving an Outstanding Service Award, Goodwin says, “I've always believed that we should give back and support things that are important in our lives, and Skidmore has continued to be important to me—not only because of the education and fun I had as a student, but also because of the connection to my classmates and seeing the different accomplishments and directions our lives have taken.”
As an undergrad, Brennan studied literature, art, and drama. For an independent study project, she spent a semester traveling around the Navajo Reservation and numerous pueblos in the Southwest, interviewing Native American poets and novelists. She later spent another semester studying the art of literary magazines (including Skidmore’s own Salmagundi) with Professor Robert Boyers. Her student years, she says, “were marked by exploration, intellectual and creative growth, and lots of great friendships.”
Brennan, an English major (and yearbook editor), notes that she was on campus “in the days of Woodstock and the Vietnam War, so memories of the music and the student protests of that time are still very vivid,” she says. In addition, “all of my English professors were excellent guides and mentors, and helped me to dig deeper and better articulate my own thoughts and point of view.”
After Skidmore, Brennan went on to earn an MS in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her career has included several executive positions, including vice president of operations at Travelers Insurance Company, vice president of product development and marketing at the Hartford Financial Services Groups, and, most recently, vice president of client services at MedRisk, the nation’s largest occupational health and physical medicine network. She has also served as an adjunct faculty member for the School of Business at Central Connecticut State University.
Earlier this year, Brennan was awarded a fellowship with the University of Connecticut Nonprofit Leadership Program. She is currently participating in its intensive training that prepares experienced corporate and public-service professionals to transition their expertise to managerial positions in Connecticut’s nonprofit sector.
Even though her career in financial services represented a “major detour” from her studies at Skidmore, Brennan says, “I found that the skills I developed while analyzing literature and art proved to be a helpful foundation” for the analytical and “make-your-case” skills required in the financial sector. “My studies also honed my communication skills, and Skidmore’s overall academic environment supported and encouraged creativity,” she adds. “This proved helpful as I later jumped into the marketing arena.”
Volunteerism has long been an integral part of Brennan’s repertoire. She is a member of the University of Hartford’s board of visitors, which oversees all aspects of its library development, including a current study on academic libraries of the future. She has also served on the board of directors for Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford and on the board of trustees for Connecticut Opera.
Brennan’s Skidmore experience has come full circle by way of volunteer activities. She has been a class agent, reunion fundraising chair, and class president. Currently a member of the Awards Committee, she has also served on the Business Advisory Council and the alumni board and is a longtime member of the Friends of the Presidents Committee. As a member of the board of trustees, she was active in the Audit, Student Life, and Advancement Committees and served as board secretary and vice chair of the Academic Affairs Committee.
Brennan has especially enjoyed her experience as an MB107 executive volunteer. “I really like seeing the business students in action and hearing their strategic recommendations on the assigned case study,” she says. “The presentations are highly creative, and I always come away impressed.” Other highlights of her Skidmore volunteer efforts include being part of the dialogue regarding expansion of on-campus student housing (Northwoods Village apartments) and performance space (Arthur Zankel Music Center).
Volunteering “has enabled me to expand my network of Skidmore friends,” Brennan notes, adding that “both paths—student and volunteer—are equally memorable and have been equally influential for me.”
Amy O’Leary ’92 says on the day she graduated, it hadn’t yet dawned on her that “you spend only four years as a student at Skidmore but the rest of your life as an alum!”
Taking that concept to heart, O’Leary has contributed significantly to the College as an alumna, serving as class president, class agent, reunion chair for her fifth and 10th reunions, regional phonathon volunteer, and club volunteer. She has also served as president of the Boston Skidmore Club and in various capacities on the alumni board, most recently as vice president for involvement, chair of reunions, and Nominating Committee member.
O’Leary enjoys volunteering and the satisfaction that comes with giving back to the College. “It’s hard to put into words the strong connection you can develop to this place,” she says, recalling “the freedom and feeling of empowerment” she experienced as a student on the road to self-discovery.
The list of ways Skidmore has profoundly affected her life and career is long: “The friends I made as a student remain my best friends in the world,” O’Leary says. “The Class of ’92 continues to stay close and provide inspiration. I am grateful for the faculty and professors who challenged me in and out of the classroom, and who encouraged me to think differently and take risks. Working at the Early Childhood Center on campus helped prepared me for my first job as a preschool teacher in Boston and strengthened my commitment and passion for early education.”
Having earned a degree in psychology and early education from Skidmore, O’Leary went on to earn a master’s in public administration from the Sawyer School of Management at Suffolk University. In 1999, she received Skidmore’s David Porter Young Alumni Service Award, and in 2000, she was one of just 30 people from across the country to participate in the Children’s Defense Fund Emerging Leader fellowship. In 2011, she was elected to the governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
O’Leary, of Brookline, MA, is now director of Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, an advocacy and policy organization that works to ensure that children in Massachusetts have access to high-quality early education and become proficient readers by the end of third grade. A Skidmore connection helped O’Leary land her current position: Soon after graduation she sought help from Career Services, who put her in touch with Margaret Blood ’80. The two met for an informational interview. No job came from that meeting, but Blood became a mentor and the two stayed in touch, crossing paths at least once a year. Ten years after their initial meeting, O’Leary had another interview with Blood, who offered her the job at Strategies for Children.
Reflecting on her time as an undergraduate, O’Leary says she realizes now more than ever the significance of her college years for her and her classmates. She says, “We came to a place that values the importance of a liberal arts education… a place where the arts are appreciated and integrated into everyday life… where the faculty and student relationship is a high priority for both the faculty and the students… a place that encourages taking risks and leads by example. We came to a place that helped nurture our growth and development into adults.”
O’Leary (sister of Justin O’Leary ’94) says she didn’t know back then the critical role her student experiences would play in laying a strong foundation for the real-world life ahead. “I feel so incredibly lucky and fortunate,” she says. Staying connected to the College is important. “We all shared the ‘Skidmore experience,’” she notes. “And while that may mean something completely different to each one of us, we return to Reunion to celebrate, remember, and reconnect to Skidmore.”
Kate Nedelman Herbst ’02 is in court on a daily basis—on the good side of the law. Having double-majored in government and women’s studies at Skidmore, she went on to earn a degree from Vermont Law School in 2005. Later that year, she was admitted to the Connecticut Bar and served as a legal research clerk for the judges of the Superior Court of Connecticut in both the Litchfield and Waterbury judicial districts. From 2006 to 2008, she worked at the private Connecticut firm of Logan and Mencuccini, handling criminal defense, personal injury, family law, and workers compensation. She returned to Boston in 2008 to work for the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office (where she had once interned as a student prosecutor), appearing in various courts, including Quincy and Brookline District Courts. She is currently supervisor in Dedham District Court and also handles cases in Norfolk Superior Court.
In her daily work, Herbst handles a variety of criminal cases—including operating under the influence, drug offenses, and domestic violence and other violent crimes—from arraignment through trial. She is also a member of the Motor Vehicle Homicide Team, reponding to collisions involving fatalities or serious injuries, assisting the police in their investigation, and prosecuting anyone who may be charged as a result of the collision.
Herbst, who minored in religion, says her Skidmore education taught her to “think broadly and creatively—and to problem-solve, something that helps me in my career every day. Although the law and procedural issues play a large part in my daily practice of being a prosecutor, creativity matters a lot. Much of my time is spent finding creative solutions as opposed to just making legal arguments.”
Serving as vice president of SGA while at Skidmore also had a lasting impact, she notes. “It was a fantastic accomplishment to effect change in our environment, and to feel like we had really made a difference for our school and classmates.” That experience in particular helped her believe in herself, which in turn has fueled her ability to advance both professionally and personally as a prosecutor.
“My experience at Skidmore, both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities, allowed me to learn who I really was and what I wanted to be,” Herbst attests. “I learned leadership skills, and I learned where and how I excelled. I gained confidence in myself, which has been the most essential thing in developing and growing my career path.”
Her volunteer work for Skidmore includes three years as president of the Boston Skidmore Club. Herbst is also currently a reunion co-chair (with senior-year roommate Alison Pruchansky ’02), class secretary, and class FOP chair, and since 2010 has served as vice president of the alumni board. Herbst says she is energized by staying in touch with classmates and keeping everyone up to date with each other. Explaining what motivates her as an alumna volunteer, she notes, “I loved my experience at the College; it gave me a lot, and I enjoy giving back. I was raised to give back—and it’s also a lot of fun doing so.”
She is proud to be this year’s recipient of the Porter Award. Past winners, she notes, “have been great leaders. They taught by example and have demonstrated to me how to be an effective and enthusiastic volunteer. They have shown me how to give back, and I am honored to be included in their number.”
Honors one alumna/us graduated one to 10 years who has utilized his or her Skidmore education in a quest for excellence demonstrated by personal achievement. The recipient must have a continuing concern for the Skidmore community.As part of her self-determined major in linguistics, Kareen Thorpe ’02 studied abroad in Skidmore programs in Paris and Madrid. After graduation she taught English in Skidmore’s Teach in China program — first at Qufu Normal University in Shandong Province, then at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Now a seasoned U.S. diplomat competent in Chinese, French, Kiswahili, and Spanish, Thorpe fully admits that she had no idea where it was all going to lead. She simply knew that she “seemed to catch on to languages, that it was a natural fit,” and that she was grateful that Skidmore allowed her the flexibility to craft her own course of study and pursue her own personal journey.
Living in China for two years changed Thorpe—provided the proverbial ‘aha moment’—and gave her a direction that leveraged her language skills and international experience. “I found myself defending American principles and beliefs,” says Thorpe of her conversations with the Chinese people, “which got me interested in politics. Then I stumbled on a foreign affairs fellowship that covered the costs for a master’s degree in exchange for three years with the Foreign Service.”
Invited to be a Thomas R. Pickering Fellow with the U.S. Department of State, Thorpe received a master's degree in International Affairs at American University in May 2006. Six months later, she was sworn into the U.S. Foreign Service by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and sent to Nairobi, Kenya, as the ambassador’s special assistant.
Six years later, having also served as an intern in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on a temporary tour of duty in Rwanda, and more recently, as a Public Affairs Officer in Luxembourg, Thorpe is back in Washington, D.C., as one of the State Department’s key DRC contacts. In addition to being point person for the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital city, she helps shape policy through the State Department’s Africa Bureau, with a particular focus on economic and health and human rights issues (especially sexual and gender-based violence). The late 2011 DRC national elections, which Thorpe says were “flawed and lacking in transparency,” continue to occupy her attention as the U.S. government seeks to “promote democracy and governance” in the DRC.
Thorpe understands how difficult it is to build a culture of democracy. As a public diplomacy intern in Kinshasa in 2006, she witnessed the first democratic elections in the DRC in 45 years, soured unfortunately by violence the evening before the results were announced. Says Thorpe, “I stood on my patio and saw the soldiers holding their guns and ducking, ready to fire. Mortar shells, gunfire, and rockets from the tanks shook my apartment building.” She spent three nights in her apartment’s panic room. “I was secluded for safety during an event that took too many lives. …I was able to grab food and water in between rounds, but the shooting would always start again before I was finished.”
In spite of the danger and the high stakes, Thorpe says she loves being a Foreign Service Officer, first and foremost, the “act of being able to serve my country and defend our constitution.” But she also likes the mystery: “It’s a challenge. I wake up every day not knowing what’s going to happen. It keeps me guessing. It keeps me on my toes.”
Thorpe, who came to Skidmore through the Higher Education Opportunity Program, is clear that her college alma mater positioned her to pursue her passion and then open the door to a career path that absolutely fit. She is also grateful that during her four years at Skidmore she developed strong writing, thinking, and leadership skills. “As an FSO, you don’t do well without strong writing skills,” she says. “And Liberal Studies taught me that everything connects with everything, which is such an important way to frame complex international issues.” As for her year as president of Rithmos, the student jazz/hip-hop dance group, Thorpe says, “I learned the value of teamwork and camaraderie.”
Thorpe’s gratitude for Skidmore is evident in her willingness to give back. She served a two-year term as a Young Alumnus Trustee (2009-11), working on the Advancement and Student Life committees. In February 2010, she returned to campus to participate in a Career Development Alumni Back on Campus event.