President Mark D. Gearan with Karen Sulzberger and Eric Lax ’66, L.H.D. ’93 at a
regional event at their Los Angeles home. Lax is the best-selling author of works
such as Woody Allen: A Biography and Life and Death on 10 West. He serves in the
leadership volunteer role of Hobart Regional Vice President of the West Coast region.

All the More

by Eric Lax ’66, L.H.D. ’93

The tangible achievements of Mark Gearan’s spectacular 18 years at Hobart and William Smith are evident everywhere: the six new buildings, the doubled endowment, the nearly three-fold increase in early admission applications, the 28% increase in the student body, the 57 added full-time faculty positions, the 1:10 faculty-student ratio, the $205 million Campaign for the Colleges, the more than 80 capital projects to renovate residence halls, academic buildings, and athletic facilities; the list fills pages, and me, with admiration. And let’s not forget the President’s Garage Band with its clearly mutable faculty musicians—with the exception of the keyboard player, so obviously attuned to the students that like them from year to year, he seems not to have aged a day since he arrived.

Yet for all of this, it is the intangibles he has brought to the Colleges that impress me even more. One of the great allures of HWS to me is how personal colleges of this size can be. As his band suggests, Mark has made himself and his office open and accessible. Louis Hirshson, whom most people know as a dormitory but I knew as the president and was lucky enough to call a friend, engaged in campus life but in keeping with the mores of the time, not to the depth or degree Mark does with students and alumni. As Edie Sparago Irons ’66, my close buddy since our first day on campus in 1962, puts it, “The most amazing thing about the guy is the way he makes contact and connects to an individual and to a group. When he is talking to you, you feel like he knows you, and that he is actually talking to you. And he does that in such a nice, lighthearted way, you end up talking right back.”

He does not do this alone. Among her many other contributions, Mary Herlihy Gearan opens their house every Friday afternoon for tea and conversation with any and all students who might be missing home or simply want a welcoming place to go, has extra places at the dinner table nearly every night, and besides being the mother of Madeleine and Kathleen, is the godmother of campus friendships that otherwise would not be made. Mary is able to see the essence of a solitary teenager or a new arrival from abroad and connect them with others in a way that enriches all their lives.

Ella Calder ’18 recalls she “entered HWS with the common first-year fear of potential exclusion and isolation; I wondered who would be my friends or at the very least give me the time of day. As an ‘international student’ from Canada, I was invited for lunch at the president’s home. When he approached me with a smile, I thought he had mistaken me for someone else, but he said: ‘Hello, I’m Mark Gearan…what’s your name?’ I staggered to respond but today both Mark and Mary know me on a first-name basis. I am forever grateful for the effect they have had on me and on the Colleges. There is no couple more genuinely caring or more impactful on a community.”

The Colleges are far more diverse and inclusive than when the Gearan family arrived in 1999. A couple of years ago my wife Karen and I had the pleasure of hosting a group of 10 incoming first-year students from the L.A. area who were Posse Foundation scholars—excellent students who might otherwise have been overlooked who were awarded scholarships. The chance to get to know each other before going to Geneva helped them to be mutually supportive in the new world of campus life in a distant part of the country none had seen before. When I was a student, town and gown were separate, unequal, and uneasy with the other. No longer. Mark created the Geneva Partnership, engaging the Colleges with the city and residents in numerous ways, from committing to helping the city balance its budget, to partnering with the school district, to working with the town to become one of 10 All America Cities in 2015. But most important to an old Peace Corps Volunteer like me, now all HWS students take part in community service throughout the year, collectively offering more than 80,000 hours of time.

As most everyone knows, Mark was director of the Peace Corps before coming to HWS and had distinguished himself in public service at the White House. My Peace Corps years right after I left Geneva changed my outlook and my life, and I know from experience that the volunteerism HWS students offer allows them to learn even more than they give. Mark rejuvenated the Peace Corps, and the vital spirit that he brought, and that students share in, make Hobart and William Smith very different liberal arts colleges.

Community service gets to the heart of a liberal arts education, in which book knowledge is enhanced by wide experience in unaccustomed areas. “Oh, this learning, what a thing it is,” the oblivious Gremio says in The Taming of the Shrew. Sometimes clueless is smart because the best lessons are unknowable at the outset. We learn from texts but even more from context. The understanding that comes from involvement in unfamiliar circumstances with others unlike ourselves makes us better citizens and better, smarter, more compassionate people able to lead lives of consequence beyond profession.

Many years ago, my classmate Donald Stern ’66 worked with Mark in Massachusetts. When the search committee for the new president asked his opinion, he was filled with praise, and Mark’s endless ability was evident the day he started. Don and I talked a few months later, after I’d had the chance to meet Mark. Our great concern was that at 43, and with the average tenure of college presidents about eight years, we would be lucky if he stayed even that many before being lured away.

Here we are nearly two decades later, fortunate to have had the Gearans unimaginably longer than anyone could dare to hope. Which will make not just me miss them all the more.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.