Trustee Chair Emeritus L. Thomas Melly ’52, L.H.D.’02 in the lobby that bears his
name in Gearan Center for the Performing Arts.

Louder Than Words

A Conversation with L. Thomas Melly ‘52, L.H.D. ‘02, Trustee Chair Emeritus

by Catherine Williams

For nearly 65 years, Tom Melly’s name has been synonymous with the Colleges. His reputation as a fierce advocate for Hobart and William Smith is matched only by what his colleagues describe as a charming personality that has persuaded countless alums and parents to support HWS or serve on the Board. “When Tom Melly asks you to lunch, prepare yourself,” jokes Trustee Christopher S. Welles ‘84, P’12, P’15, who chairs the Advancement Committee of the HWS Board. “You will leave having committed some part of your time or philanthropy to Hobart and William Smith.”

As the senior statesman of the Board, Melly has proven to be a calming force through challenging times. When decision-making reaches a tipping point, the Board conversation inevitably turns to one question: “What does Melly think?” He reserves his voice for moments that matter, speaking up to coax the Board into alignment and to remind everyone of the stakes – that we are educating the next generation of HWS alums, people who will go on to lead corporations, non-profit organizations, classrooms and our nation. He doesn’t dominate Board conversation; rather his perspective and love for HWS permeate every conversation.

The two spaces on campus that bear his name – The L. Thomas Melly Academic Center and the L. Thomas Melly ‘52 Lobby in Gearan Center for the Performing Arts – are places of community, where people gather for conversation, to share ideas and laughter, and to reflect on what they’ve learned. Both spaces represent who Melly is fundamentally – a person who encourages dialogue, understands the value of collaboration and believes passionately that the future of the Colleges is dependent on the continued engagement of alums and parents.

Melly’s service to HWS includes the creation of multiple scholarships, investment in the Annual Fund and support for athletics projects, as well as leadership of the Colleges’ last two capital campaigns. He served as chair of the Board for 11 years. He is credited, in partnership with William F. Scandling ’49, L.H.D. ’67, with creating the Colleges’ important planned giving initiative. Melly graduated from Hobart with a degree in economics, was a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity, and played on the football and lacrosse teams. He retired as a partner from Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Q: You’ve had a long and successful career in finance and chaired the HWS Board. What have these experiences taught you about leadership?
A: Leading by example is key. That and communication. I had some tough issues when I was chair of the Board – everything from investments in South Africa to The Solomon Amendment. In every instance, I talked things over one-on-one with every member of the Board so there were no surprises.

Good leaders also surround themselves with great people. I will take credit for Honorary Trustee Lang Cook P’99, P’05, L.H.D.’12, who was my next-door neighbor. And when we needed a CPA on the Board, I went after Andrew G. McMaster, Jr. ‘74, P’09, who is now vice chair. People like Lang and Andy – and many others – have served the Board tremendously. We’ve also benefited from others like Art de Cordova ’56, L.H.D. ’05, who I was able to convince to make his gift to the Colleges public, which inspired others to step up. I have a reputation for being very tenacious. When you’re right, it’s a great leadership trait.

Q: Why are the Colleges a good investment?
A: I was a first-generation college student. My father knew nothing about education and in fact never graduated from high school. He was a wonderful person who had a tough life. He lived through the Depression and lost his wife at a young age. I felt sorry for him. I never rebelled because I wanted so much for him to be happy with me. I had applied helter skelter to a number of schools but my father had a friend whose son was at Hobart – Bruce Bensley ’51, P’98, L.H.D. ’01. Dr. Bensley pushed Hobart and my father agreed. So I came to Hobart and it changed my life. Everyone has a story like that, a moment they can point to that was transformative. We give in honor of that. But we also give because Hobart and William Smith Colleges are well on their way to becoming very elite colleges. We have a tremendous faculty, a beautiful campus, talented students. I have such a sense of optimism and clarity about the future of the Colleges. They deserve our support.

Q: Why did you take a leadership role in the performing arts center?
A: I’m tone deaf. I’m not an opera buff but I do enjoy plays and dance. The Colleges’ ability to move into the future with certainty is dependent on having an exceptional performing arts center. Those are the projects I invest in – the ones that will push the Colleges forward.

Q: What issues dominate Board conversations?
A: Money is a challenge and that’s stayed consistent. The endowment in the early 1980s was only $8 million. Today it’s about $200 million. There are so many times in our history when the Colleges should have failed but didn’t. We were saved by ingenuity, innovative programs like V-12 after World War II, and by the support of alums and parents. Today, we’re in a position of strength. The search for scholarship support, capital project funds and annual support, though, continues.

When the drinking age went from 19 to 21 in the mid-eighties – that changed the campus culture. I was chair at the time and there were many issues we had to deal with as a result. Now, the conversations are about Title IX and harassment. We’ve had to add extra administrators, security and counselors. Everyone wants to do the right thing and we will, but it requires conversation among the Board on the best path forward and how we can provide the kind of education our students deserve.

Q: How do you envision the Colleges in 20 years?
A: I hope we can do as much as we have during the last 20 years. We’re getting better students who are more diverse and who are coming from a greater geographic range. Successful fundraising can help with keeping up with facilities for STEM, for example. I’m eager to see what’s accomplished.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.