Creating Community with Mary Herlihy Gearan

by Mary K. LeClair

A month after arriving at Hobart and William Smith Colleges while contemplating her future in a new community, Mary Herlihy Gearan volunteered to be the cookie mother for her 6-year old daughter Madeleine’s Girl Scout troop.

“I had no idea how that one decision was going to catapult me into a lot of people’s lives in a way that was so special for us,” says Gearan, recalling not only the hundreds of boxes of cookies that lined the tables and floors of The President’s House but more significantly the mothers, fathers, guardians and grandparents who came with their children to pick up those cookies.

From that first outreach in 1999, Gearan’s gracious and genuine nature has spread across Geneva and the HWS campus, where her effortless ability to welcome and connect people – students, faculty and community members – has allowed her to spread her belief in the power of service. On campus she formally extends her home to students for an Open House each Friday – or any day they come knocking – greeting each at the door with a warm smile, asking about their classes and families, and then introducing them to others with similar interests.

Mary Herlihy Gearan with Felipe Estefan ’08
on campus.

“Mary Gearan is the heart of the Hobart and William Smith community and the source of making community happen,” says Felipe Estefan ’08, who credits Gearan with urging him to go to graduate school, which led to his career as an investment principal in governance and citizen engagement at Omidyar Network. “She creates community. It is truly remarkable the guidance, comfort and advice that she has given me but also to so many students. She is the reason so many of us feel at home in this small town in Upstate New York whether we came from Tucson, Arizona, Johannesburg, South Africa, Munich, Germany or Bogotá, Colombia.”

In Geneva, Gearan has become a vital force quietly volunteering at multiple agencies with a particular focus on those that aid children. As the Room Representative for Madeleine’s classroom, she witnessed firsthand the needs in the community. “I had one little boy ask what I was going to be doing with the food from a class party,” Gearan recalls. “I could see that the snacks – the celery and carrots – were what he wanted. I packed them all up for him and it really broke my heart because I knew this was going to be food that he was going to eat that weekend. This experience opened my eyes to the importance of really being involved as best you can with helping kids.”

Ford Weiskittel, past president of the Geneva Board of Education and fellow Rotarian, is grateful for Gearan’s support of the city schools and the community. “When Mark and Mary decided to send their daughters to the Geneva schools not only did that make a statement of support for the schools but it also meant they were personally involved, especially Mary. She is always in the schools and when I see her she is always greeting students by name and encouraging them to get involved,” he says.

Weiskittel credits Gearan with the significant growth of the Interact program and the vast community involvement with the annual Festival of Nations celebration. “I think it has a lot to do with Mary making the kids feel welcome. They feel honored, valued and they want to be involved,” he says. “The school district is getting better and better every year, and Mary is like the hand that rolls across a hoop to make it go faster. She is adding to the momentum, adding to the improvement.”

Mary Herlihy Gearan (third from right), Mark D. Gearan (center) and former
presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis (second from right) gather with volunteers
working on the Dukakis presidential campaign.

In retrospect, Gearan, a former vice president at the Wexler Group, believes her skill in connecting people blossomed while overseeing volunteers in Chicago during the Michael S. Dukakis presidential campaign. Possessing a law degree from George Washington University, she worked as a fundraiser, national delegate liaison and California Field Desk Officer on the 1988 campaign.

“I appreciate the volunteer coordinators who I have had in my life who did welcome me in and thank me for coming. They have been my models of just trying to make people know that you do appreciate them so much when they can help you a little bit,” she says. “I hope I make people feel appreciated for anything they can do to help.”

Mary Boatfield, the CEO of Finger Lakes Cerebral Palsy-Happiness House, CP Rochester and Rochester Rehabilitation, where Gearan has served on the board for the past 15 years, calls Gearan “the connector.”

“Mary is always making the circle bigger and better while always helping others,” says Boatfield. “She is strong, thoughtful, quietly getting the job done –and giving credit to others. Mary is truly interested in each and every person and what they are doing. She makes you feel good, as if you are important and your life is important. And every single piece of guidance that she passes along she does it in a way to help individuals better their lives.”

Mary Herlihy Gearan presents a check from the Colleges to the United Way, the
result of the HWS Community Barn Sale.

Chris Lavin ’81, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club and the Geneva Community Center since 2014, agrees. “Through Mary Gearan, when I arrived in Geneva two years ago, I was immediately connected to the campus and the community was connected to me,” says Lavin, who champions Gearan’s capacity to recognize the needs in the community and match those needs to campus capabilities. “HWS students and faculty are all over town, studying, volunteering, doing research. The Colleges host regular visits of local youth, summer enrichment programs and athletic camps. Mary Gearan has broadened the definitions of “campus” and “community” in Geneva.”

Aloysius Kolubah’15 not only credits Gearan with making him feel confident in his decision to work in the fashion industry, he says she “pulled me back when I was trying to run away from my goal.” He recalls being on the verge of tears in the kitchen of the President’s House believing the job market was too competitive. “She said to me, ‘Aloysius, sometimes you have to let life happen.’ It was so comforting and calming to know that she believed in me and that I could do this.”

Gearan asked Kolubah to offer his artistic talents for the Festival of Nations celebration and he now calls it one of the best experiences in his life. “Festival of Nations was one of those rare moments when I sat back exhausted and happy that everyone around me was happy and enjoying themselves. I would do it again if I could,” he says.

Joseph Rivera-Ramos ’04, a textile and resource librarian at Stickley, Audi and Co., in Manhattan and the president of Rivera- Ramos Design for the Art of Living, says: “Mary Gearan’s promotion of my abilities has positively altered my perspective on success and prosperity, and will forever connect me to a greater sense of myself and my potential.”

During Friday Open House visits, Emily Ott ’17 often discusses with Gearan her desire to work in the field of city planning and her community projects. As president of HWS Rotaract, Ott’s civic engagement work has blossomed, assisting with programs like Neighbor’s Night, the Community Lunch Program and the Geneva Public Library. “Mary Gearan has inspired me to dedicate time for service and mentoring wherever I am living, whatever I am doing.”

Marie Milligan, social ministry coordinator at Our Lady of Peace Parish, has worked with Gearan on such projects as the Thanksgiving basket program and migrant worker initiatives.

“Mary Gearan is a light that shows others the way and how to do their best. Mary does good work and supports the good work of others. She makes things happen from the background and then observes the successes. She is a light for all of us.”

Q & A with Mary Herlihy Gearan

Mary Herlihy Gearan speaks with students at Geneva High School prior to an
Interact meeting.

What advice do you offer to event organizers? The No. 1 thing is to get everyone’s cell numbers. If you have cell numbers you can do anything. I am not a big fan of cell phones in many ways but that is one thing that I do think has made organizing easier. I can just text and get a group together.

Number of HWS student cell numbers on your phone? 250.

Favorite saying: ‘Peace begins with a smile,’ by Mother Teresa. It sounds simple but I really believe in that sort of philosophy.

Favorite fact you enjoy sharing about the President’s House: First lady Eleanor Roosevelt sat at this dining room table in 1947.

As the only board that you officially serve on, what prompted your commitment to Happiness House more than 15 years ago? Shortly before I was asked to serve, Mark and I were with our dear friends when they discovered their son had autism. Happiness House is an inspiring and beautiful place that fills families with positive hope.

Volunteer Affiliations:

  • Happiness House-Finger Lakes Cerebral Palsy Association board of directors
  • Geneva Heroes adviser
  • Rotary and Interact, member and adviser
  • Boys and Girls Club of Geneva
  • Festival of Nations committee member
  • Geneva High School Multicultural Club adviser
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Art and Poetry committee member
  • African American Men’s Association, Life Skills Program
  • Our Lady of Peace Parish
  • Center of Concern
  • Geneva Historical Society annual Wassail Bowl
  • Community Lunch Program
  • Geneva Music Festival board member
  • St. Peter’s Episcopal Church youth programming


  • 2008 “Mary Herlihy Gearan Award,” established by HWS International Student Association
  • 2010 “Citizen of the Year,” Geneva Chamber of Commerce
  • 2010 “Sharing the Light,” Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes
  • 2011 “Happiness is Helping" Humanitarian Award, Happiness House
  • 2011 New York State “Women of Distinction”
  • 2012 Women’s History Month recognition, Lake to Lake Women
  • 2014 Springstead Award, Geneva Rotary Club
  • 2016 “Outstanding Board Member of the Year,” Ability Partners Foundation
  • 2016 “Paul Harris Award,” Geneva Rotary Club

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.