July 31, 2023

Dear Members of the Hobart and William Smith Community, 

I write with the heartbreaking news that Assistant Professor of Philosophy Carol Oberbrunner died on Thursday from complications following an illness. Professor Oberbrunner was a committed and enthusiastic educator and a deeply curious scholar. Since arriving at the Colleges in 1998, she modeled critical thinking and openness of thought for her students and for the broader campus, demonstrating the profound results of asking questions and of listening. As she said in her Convocation remarks at the start of the 2009-10 academic year, “Here we have the luxury of being able to think and work together, to expand our understanding in a community which honors our searching.”

Professor Oberbrunner was an incisive thinker and teacher whose scholarship and teaching probed profound questions about humanity and the natural world. She earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College, an M.A. from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University. After teaching at Ithaca College, she came to Hobart and William Smith where she provided consequential mentorship for many students, advising Honors projects leading students into topics such as the philosophy of human nature and theories of reality. Indeed, for her incredible work as an educator, she was recognized by her colleagues with the Faculty Teaching Award in 2009.

For 61 years, Carol was married to her late husband John, a flutist, charter member of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra and HWS woodwind instructor. Music was a common love for John and Carol; they sang together in a variety of choral groups. They were the parents of three children, Gary, LisaAnn and Karen, and had four grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and three step-great-grandsons. 

I will remember Carol for her energy, her optimism and her insight, all of which is captured in her remarks at Convocation in 2009. There, she reflected on the joys of teaching and the successes of former students, as well as why she taught philosophy, and more broadly what led her “to focus so intently on the importance of asking questions and of listening.”

I invite you to read Professor Oberbrunner’s remarks in full, but I wanted to share a passage that speaks to her empathy and intelligence: “I believe that being heard in this way is a burning need of people everywhere. We all want to be asked how we see things and what we need, and it is crucial that our answers are heard.... My wish for all of us is that the humanitarian and global awareness fostered here and the precious connections which we make here will continue to energize us — both for the sake of our own community and for the sake of our fellow beings both nearby and far away. There is no better way for us to cherish our own lives than to work on behalf of our human family.”

A week before she died, Mary and I reached out to Carol to let her know that she was in our thoughts. That same day, she responded with a lovely note that I will always cherish. In it, she wrote, “You know I love Hobart and William Smith with all my heart. I have always been ecstatic when I realize that for some students, I’ve helped to make HWS the right choice for them.”

To the many on campus who knew and appreciated Professor Oberbrunner whether as a student or a colleague, please know that there are resources to assist you. Students can obtain counseling services 24/7 by calling (315) 781-3388 and selecting option 1. Faculty and staff can access services through the Employee Assistance Program. The Office of Spiritual Engagement is also available to all in the community.

Carol’s family is planning a memorial service and we will let the campus community know when details become available. As we prepare to begin the academic year, let us honor Carol for her dedication to her students and the vibrancy she brought to our campus.    


Mark D. Gearan