Mara O'Laughlin '66

Mara O'Laughlin '66, L.H.D. '13
Baccalaureate address
May 18, 2013


Thank you very much and good afternoon everyone.

When Mark Gearan asked me to speak today, I was completely flummoxed. Why me? This class doesn’t know me. But I was also incredibly honored.

And let me share with you one of my most deeply held secrets: I’ve never been to a Baccalaureate service. Not even my own. Looking out at you, I can see what I’ve missed! I wasn’t quite sure what the message is supposed to be – we’ve shared some inspirational moments today and there will be more tomorrow so that’s probably been lifted from my shoulders.

Until very recently we held Baccalaureate in the Chapel on campus. These are places where we often go to be together at important moments…I’ve been to weddings here and in the Chapel, and far too many memorial services.  I remember vividly Nov. 22, 1963, my sophomore year.  I was coming out of a class in Trinity Hall and someone said, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” Everyone huddled around a car parked on South Main Street, listening to the radio, hanging on every word.  No one spoke, we barely breathed. And then, when the president’s death was announced, we trooped to the Chapel, spontaneously, to be together…hundreds of us, probably half of the student body, at that time about 1100…sitting on the window ledges, all over the floor, the aisles - to be together at an important moment…as we are now, on this joyous occasion.

And, we turn out to be classmates – you’ll receive your bachelor’s degree tomorrow, a few the Master’s in teaching, and I an honorary doctorate.  I have to tell you that I’m thrilled about that, simply thrilled.  My nametags will now say ’66 and ’13. They’ll start asking me for money twice…I know those people. Maybe this isn’t such a great honor after all!

But, when Mark asked me to speak, he looked at me and said, “it’s all about transitions. They’re making one now and you’re making one now.” So, I’m really most pleased that we have this chance to pause and reflect together. I thought I should tell you something about myself, my long tenure here, and the many transitions that I’ve made, along with Hobart and William Smith. You will, too, as your lives unfold.  But how lucky you are to have had the chance to begin your journey here, as did I.

I arrived here in l962 from New York City…right in the heart of Manhattan.  When I was looking at schools, there were very few liberal arts colleges that were coeducational or coordinate.  Just look down the Thruway for example: Colgate, Hamilton, Union…all men’s colleges at the time and I’d gone to a girls’ school for six years. Also, as I began my college search, students from Hobart and William Smith were knocking off their opponents week after week on a wildly popular TV show, “The GE College Bowl.” The Colleges retired as undefeated champions and I had found my first transition: Manhattan to Geneva.

It turned out to be a very easy one.  So much so, that I’ve never left.

I eventually married – one of my professors, actually. You’re looking at a scandal. It didn’t seem all that scandalous to us and, indeed, we were married for 35 years until his death in 1999.  Frank was a towering figure on the faculty in the ‘60’s when we had a requirement called “Western Civilization” or Western Civ. He was one of the architects of the course – it took us over for the first two years – surviving it was surviving boot camp.  It was the central piece of the curriculum here for twenty-five years. We didn’t read excerpts from the great books – we read the book. I remember showing the syllabus to my high school classmates who had gone on to Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges...they said, “Wow, we don’t have anything like this.” It was simply the best course of its kind in its day. But that day is long gone.  Can you imagine a graduation requirement now that only looked at Western Civilization? Or whose great books were all written by men? But those were the times and we never even questioned it.

We weren’t questioning much of anything in 1962. But by 1966 everything had begun to change. My four years were really a bridge from the in loco parentis of the 1950’s with its suffocating rules and regulations – for women – to the chaos on campuses that began in the mid to late ‘60’s. By 1966, when I graduated, we were mired in Vietnam and this campus was powerfully in transitionIn loco parentis became a thing of the past and, eventually, so did Western Civ. The campus was a center of antiwar activity. Both the students and the faculty were deeply upset and in the spring of 1970, after the shootings at Kent State, there was a general moratorium on classes. Hobart and William Smith was the epicenter of anti-war activity in Upstate New York. The powers that be in Washington took note. They sent an agent provacateur, the infamous Tommy the Traveler, to deliberately get our students to disrupt things -- and they did. They blew up the ROTC office in the basement of Sherrill Hall.  We made Walter Cronkite’s evening news broadcast. Today we’d be all over Twitter.

In just a few short years, the atmosphere on campus had completely changed. The Colleges and I were both undergoing powerful transitions.  I walked across Coxe Hall, diploma in hand, and wondered, “what the hell am I going to do in Geneva, New York?” Can we really take the kid out of the city? Like New York City’s Mayor Koch who famously dismissed Upstate New York as, “anything north of the Bronx” I was skeptical. But just then, the Romulus Central School across the lake was looking for a social studies teacher.  Problem solved. The principal and I hit it off immediately – he was also a New York City transplant. I was able to stay one lesson plan ahead of the kids that first year, but eventually I got the hang of it.  I got to be a pretty good teacher, actually. I got tenure, and I got restless.

Serendipity took over again: there was an opening in the William Smith admissions office. We had two separate offices at the time.  I joined the small staff in 1972 and two years later was named Director of Admissions…a title I kept for 31 years – eighteen of them for William Smith and then for both Colleges beginning in 1992. 

I was in the city a few years ago at the Fairway supermarket on 74th Street and Broadway.  I ran into a woman from the Class of 1981.  She turned to her friend and said, “This woman changed my life.” Her eyes welled up and she thanked me profusely for having faith in her when she applied.  Her credentials were not up to our standards so I made her come back to campus and interviewed her a second time. I just had a hunch about her…we offered her admission, none of her other colleges did. You can imagine my delight when she graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa and went on to law school.

When my retirement was announced this year, I heard from many, many others with the same message: thank you for believing in me.  I doubt that happens at big schools…you just pass through admissions at the University of Somewhere. But here, we get to know you even before you arrive. Here, even admissions directors change lives.  So do your professors, of course, and the administrative staff that supports the academic enterprise, and the people in the bookstore and your coaches and Betty and Mark and the people at Buildings & Grounds. They were all here from Day One to help with your transition to Hobart and William Smith. You’ll miss them, I know. But these relationships will last and you’ll stay connected.

Or, you can be like me and never leave! Just transition around the place…which is what I did.  You see, Mark Gearan is a very persuasive man and in 2005 he called and invited me to lunch. He asked me to lead the fundraising effort for the upcoming William Smith Centennial. I jumped at the chance and then quickly realized, “I know nothing about fundraising.” But it turned out to be an easy transition because I knew William Smith College and the alumnae knew me. I left admissions, and joined my new colleagues in the Office of Advancement.  The William Smith alumnae were eager to support the effort. In two years, we raised over $8 million dollars and gave the Colleges the Centennial Center for Leadership.  We’re very proud of that.

It seemed like the perfect time to retire – but the phone rang again. Mark Gearan asked me out to lunch…I mean, what’s a girl to do? He persuaded me to stay on to help get that Performing Arts Center built. I knew from my years in admissions just how much we need it. We’re almost there…it will be a stunning centerpiece for the campus.

Now, finally, I’m really in transition…it’s called retirement. Mark hasn’t asked me out to lunch…I get the message. It’s a big transition for sure.  Second only to yours, perhaps. It’s often said that you’re about to enter “the real world.” Nonsense. This is the real world…Geneva, NY is a microcosm of everything that you’ll find once you go through the Exit 42 tollbooth. You’ve already been deeply engaged in the issues you’ll confront “out there”…you’ve

  • Studied and worked all over the world and sung at Lincoln Center
  • You’ve designed your own companies and served as honorary board members at local non-profits
  • You’ve been on an undefeated football team and reached the women’s soccer Final Four…you know teamwork
  • Over four years, you’ve donated 80,000 hours of sweat equity to Geneva, debated on the world stage and built a playground
  • You’ve confronted issues of racism and you have been outstanding for LGBT
  • You’ve won Fulbright and Goldwater scholarships – more Fulbrights than any previous class.
  • You’ve secured places in the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and City Year, as well as Wall Street
  • You’ve designed the neighborhood signage for Geneva and plunged into that lake in December to support cancer awareness…you heard me, parents – they jumped in the lake in December.
  • You’ve appeared in TWIP and you have endured the President’s garage band

You’re ready for anything. You’ve met many challenges and you’re prepared for many more. You have a top-notch education and this whole place is supporting your future efforts. It may not seem obvious to you at this very moment but it’s clear to me that you’re ready for this transition.

For years, my office was here on South Main Street – directly across the lake from my home. It’s my little piece of the world. When I announced my retirement, many people looked at me and asked, “Are you staying in Geneva?” Yes, of course -- it’s home. We’ve finally taken the city out of the kid… I made that transition years ago.

Mark, thank you again for the honor of speaking today.  Let’s do lunch!

I congratulate you, my classmates. You have my very best wishes…see you tomorrow!