Here’s to the Ladies

A tribute to six women- from a college president and a book publisher to a farmer- who have enriched the Valley, both through their professional work and their volunteerism.

Here’s To The Ladies

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We salute six women — among them a farmer, a book

publisher, and a college president — whose accomplishments have enriched the Valley immeasurably  

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by Jan Greenberg

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Beginning at Home

Cathy Varunok and Dana Effron were nodding acquaintances until the day they — literally — bumped into each other as they were walking through the doors of the Dyson Center for Cancer Care at Vassar Brothers Medical Center. The result of that too-close encounter was the creation, in 2003, of the Miles of Hope Breast Cancer Foundation, which offers support and services to people affected by breast cancer in the Valley.

Effron, who lives in LaGrangeville, Dutchess County, was treated for breast cancer nine years ago. Her sister is a four-year survivor. Varunok, a resident of nearby LaGrange, lost her older sister to the disease, while her mother is in remission. Both women had been active in national breast cancer awareness programs and fund-raisers. Over time, they began to see a need for an organization that would serve people locally.


“While I was going through treatment,” says Effron, “people were just wonderful to me. When I was finished, I felt I wanted to do something for others who were going through the same experience. My sister, niece, and I got involved in national organizations and participated in the Avon walks. We actually raised $194,000 over a four-year period. But I never saw any of that money come back to help people here.”


“The day we bumped into each other, we began to talk,” says Varunok, an occupational therapist at the Dyson Center, who works with breast cancer patients. “It turned out that our ideas about what we wanted to accomplish were identical.” Both women were already involved in starting separate foundations and decided to pool their efforts and work together.


For an endeavor that began disbursing funds a year ago, Miles of Hope has made a difference for a surprising number of residents, offering services and aid, and underwriting programs previously unavailable. “We are careful to fund and support only new programs,” says Effron. “We don’t want to duplicate any services that already exist.”


Among the foundation’s first projects was a medical gap care fund to help people who are either underinsured or face a sudden emergency not covered by insurance while in treatment. “One of our first recipients,” says Effron, “was a woman who was at home dying with her three adult children taking care of her. She was at the very end stages and we provided private nursing for her to go beyond what Hospice could provide.”


Understanding that the disease has an impact on families as well as the individual, Miles of Hope provides scholarships for high school seniors entering college. “The first year, we awarded three scholarships to children who had lost a parent to breast cancer,” says Effron. “But these days, the good news is that so many people are living long and productive lives with the disease. We realized we should expand the pool to include children whose lives have been affected by a family member with breast cancer. This year, we awarded 16 scholarships.”


Other Miles of Hope projects include funding La Boutique at the Dyson Center, which provides a comfortable place for women undergoing treatment to purchase wigs, makeup, and prosthetics. For patients at the center on Monday mornings, there is music performed by the Botticelli Chamber Players. “We call it ‘Healing Vibrations,’ ” says Effron.

“People bring music, they sing, they even dance. We’ve even seen people come back after they’ve completed treatment just to be part of these Monday-morning musicales.” And this year, a grant will organize support groups for breast cancer patients in Putnam County.


To accomplish all this, of course, Miles of Hope needs money. There are four major fund-raising events each year: a Community Breast Cancer Walk in October, which last year netted over $40,000; a spring Family Fun Run; a summer soccer tournament; and an annual Miles of Hope Women’s Brunch, which raised more than $75,000 last year. The organization also sells a unique piece of jewelry. “For a $35 donation, you receive a bracelet made with Swarovski crystals, sterling silver Bali beads, and a special charm for survivors,” says Effron. “We’ve sold over 7,000 of them.”


“The beauty of this foundation,” adds Varunok, “is that it is community based. All our money comes from the community. All our volunteers are from the community. And all the money we raise goes back into the community.”


Frances Fergusson

Two Decades at Vassar’s Helm


Frances Fergusson, the ninth president of Vassar College, announced last February that she would leave her post after the next academic year. It will be the end of an eventful 20-year tenure that saw tremendous gains in the college’s national standing and its position in the Hudson Valley community.


“It was very hard for me to come to this decision,” says Fergusson. “I thought about it for a long time. But I knew that the college would soon be undertaking a major fund-raising effort and it would be time for someone else to establish its goals for the future. I analogized it to repotting. When you stay in one place for too long, you get a little root bound. In new soil, you shoot some new roots.”


With the average college presidency lasting five years, it’s fair to say that the Vassar College of today is very much a reflection of Fergusson’s vision and priorities. Under her leadership, the school more than tripled its endowment, to $650 million; in 1996, she presided over a $206 million fund-raising campaign.


Physically, Vassar is a different place as well. An architectural historian, Fergusson believes that spaces influence behavior. “We’ve remade the college in fundamental ways,” she says. “When I arrived [from Bucknell University, where she served as provost and vice president of academic affairs], the campus was a physical fixer-upper. We’ve made very large strides in making it beautiful — even greener. Facilities for the arts are basically in great shape now. We have a new dance theater, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, a new center for drama and film, and the Shiva Theater for student productions. We are always in the process of renovation, and our next challenge is our science facilities.”


But it is students and faculty who ultimately define a school. In the last decade, applications have more than doubled, and Vassar is now included on the Wall Street Journal’s list of “New Ivies.” “We’ve improved faculty salaries, and we have tried to keep the same kind of student mix, often very creative and slightly quirky,” says Fergusson, who earned her B.A. from Wellesley and a Ph.D. from Harvard. “These are smart kids who are questioning and extraordinary in their intellectual capacities.”


What does concern her, though, is the drying up of applications from places like Pakistan and Bangladesh. “Before 2001, we had some really brilliant students from these nations. As a matter of fact, a few years ago the student with the highest academic average in the college was from Pakistan. After 9/11, he was afraid to travel home for the holidays because it was doubtful he would be able to get a visa to return to the U.S. These days, it is such an arduous process for these students to get over here that they just don’t try.”


Fergusson has also improved town-gown relations. There is the highly regarded Poughkeepsie Farm Project, a CSA in which Vassar, its neighbors, and city of Poughkeepsie residents grow and harvest produce together. The Good Neighbors Program teaches students about philanthropy, using the community as a laboratory for everything from grant proposal and project selection to hands-on participation. The annual Community Works Fund, established in 2001, is a charitable alternative to the United Way. “This year, we raised $88,000 and funded 12 local organizations,” says Fergusson. “Our students also serve in volunteer capacities throughout the area. We even provide cars to make sure that they can get back and forth to their commitments.”


Fergusson is no stranger to service. She sits on Harvard University’s Board of Overseers and had long tenures on the boards of the Ford and Mayo Foundations, as well as many other philanthropic and educational organizations. Among her many honors is inclusion on Vanity Fair’s 1998 list of “America’s 200 Most Influential Women.”


Fergusson has no specific future plans yet, although she’ll be keeping her roots in the Dutchess County area. “I’m thinking a lot,” she says. “I’m trying to work out in my own mind whether I want another major responsibility or to serve on a series of boards in areas in which I am interested and can contribute.”


What she does know is that Vassar is a stronger institution now and the value of its degree is higher than ever.


Nancy MacNamara

Back on the Farm


I was born and raised a daughter of the land,” say Nancy MacNamara. Her father is Jackson Baldwin, one of the best known farmers working the fields and orchards dotting the eastern slopes of Ulster and Orange Counties just north of Newburgh. At age 91, he’s still riding his tractor.


A self-described “black sheep” in the family, MacNamara was interested in art, not farming, and enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating with a B.F.A. A year abroad in Athens and Rome only confirmed her determination not to return to the farm but to pursue her interest in photography. She traveled, supporting herself with jobs ranging from exercising horses at a Florida racetrack to selling ripe mangoes that fell from trees in the deserted backyards of snowbirds who had returned north for the summer.


In 1985 — 20 years after her decision to leave the farm — she came back to the family homestead with her son and daughter. She enrolled at SUNY New Paltz and worked toward a master’s degree, with a plan to teach. “It was the beginning of the time that people started to ask where their food was coming from,” she says.


At first, MacNamara took fruit into the city and sold it off a truck in the East Village. Gradually, she began to meet the increasing number of New York City chefs who were seeking locally grown, organic produce raised for flavor rather than appearance. With her father, MacNamara began to grow organic mesclun and micro-greens to sell direct to restaurants. Soon, she started to cultivate wild forage herbs as well. Jean-Georges Vongerichten was among her first customers, and soon her cadre of restaurants included Union Square Café, Tabla, Daniel, and Bouley.


Easy it wasn’t. In addition to growing and consulting with chefs about what special products they wanted (Malabar spinach for Tabla, yarrow and chickweed for Jean-Georges, lovage for Bouley), MacNamara rose at 4 a.m. three mornings a week to make deliveries, pushing loaded handcarts through crowded office lobbies and carrying cartons down steep steps to basement kitchens. “Nancy will find me the wild herbs of the region,” says Vongerichten. “And she will pick them, wash them, and pack them so they are ready for me to use.”


Last year, she became salesperson for Keepsake Farm & Friends, working with Joe Trapani, a third-generation farmer who contracts with small area farms to grow produce for over 30 New York City restaurants. (He also manages a popular seasonal farmstand in Hopewell Junction, Dutchess County.)


“I’ve been working with so many of these chefs for years and I know what they need and want,” says MacNamara. “I continue to produce specific ingredients for specific chefs, just as I always have, but I really enjoy putting the farmers together with chefs and representing both. It’s also nice not to be schlepping anymore. It gives me time to really get to know what the chefs want and how to grow it.


“You know,” she continues, “there are no books on how to grow this stuff. So when a chef like Zak Pelaccio at 5 Ninth asks for something that I haven’t done before, I bring it in from the wild and plant it in front of the house and watch it grow for as long as I can. I want to see how the plants respond to heat, light, and water. I want to know their life cycle.”


With a perspective that few growers have — born on a farm, growing unique products, developing a niche market, and seeing it take off — MacNamara is optimistic about the Valley’s agricultural future. “I feel positive about everything that is happening. Look how many farmers we are working with,” she says. “There’s such a demand for products like this, and I feel comfortable that things are moving in the right direction.”


Pamela Sawchuck Brown

PR Pathfinder


If ever there was an example of a synergistic combination of business success and public service, it is Pamela Sawchuk Brown. She is the founder of Sawchuk, Brown Associates, one of the Hudson Valley’s most successful public relations, public opinion, and marketing firms. She is also among the area’s most prodigious community service volunteers. Last year, the firm celebrated its 25th anniversary with a client roster that reads like a who’s who of the region’s most illustrious educational, communications, and not-for-profit associations, as well as many of its top businesses.


Brown was born just outside of Troy, in Cropseyville. She returned to the area after college, became a reporter at the Times Union in Albany, then was promoted to lifestyle editor. “I loved my job,” she says, “but after a while, I realized that I had gone as far as I was going to go. I wanted to find a way to use the skills I had learned as a journalist and to continue what I loved about newspaper work, learning about things for which I never thought I had an affinity, or often even an interest. Twenty-five years ago, public relations wasn’t really a known profession in the area, but it seemed to satisfy what I hoped to accomplish and I decided to try it.”


She bought herself a Selectric typewriter and picked up the phone, planning to reach out to people she knew through her years on the paper. Her first call was to John Picotte, president of the Capital Region’s largest commercial real estate company. “I said, ‘I’ve been reading about your efforts to develop an office park on the Albany-Colonie border, and you seem to be having some trouble getting your idea across. It seems to me that this is a public relations problem.’ He said, ‘You’re right. Please come in. We’d like to talk to you.’ That was the beginning, and we still have the account today.”


In 1982, her husband, David Brown, left his position as executive news editor at the Times Union and joined the rapidly expanding business. The agency was officially named Sawchuk, Brown Associates.


From the start, Brown combined work with public service. “I choose my projects with two things in mind,” she says. “I want to do things that will strengthen both the community and the businesses — and my business.” She has served on numerous boards, including the Albany Institute of History & Art, the University at Albany Foundation, and Albany District Board of Key Bank. She was co-chair of a two-year fund-raising campaign for the Regional Food Bank of Northeast New York, exceeding the $3 million goal. Brown’s most visible and longest commitment has been with the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, having served on its board since 1986. She has received its “Spirit of the Chamber Award” and in 2000 was honored by it as one of the

“100 Women of Excellence of the 20th Century.”


“It’s been a very interesting process,” Brown says. “When I became active in the chamber, Albany was a different place. It was just the seat of the government. Business didn’t really play a role in the community. The chamber has worked very hard to develop this region as an increasingly vibrant business center.”


Currently, Brown’s primary involvement is the creation of Tech Valley, a 17-county area spanning the Hudson Valley, North Country, and Capital Region. The area has already attracted state-of-the-art industries such as International SEMATECH and Tokyo Electron. To begin from the ground up, she is working on a Tech Valley High School, an initiative of the Capital Region BOCES and Questar III BOCES.


“We are helping to coordinate a partnership with business, organized labor, higher education, government, and K through 12 for a 400-student school. It’s a totally new idea,” she says. “It will focus on the emerging technologies of the region, and will be part of the business community, located on a business campus using project-based and hands-on learning.”


Debbie Allen

A Page-Turning Career


Debbie Allen’s summers weren’t particularly unusual. Like many teens, she worked at Catskill resorts that offered urban families respite from the city heat. However, she’s probably one of the few seasonal employees who not only returned as an adult and settled atop a mountain but established a signature publishing house. Her Black Dome Press is a leading publisher of New York State histories and chronicles of the life and times of the Hudson Valley.


After college, the Long Island–raised Allen moved to New York City and worked at a variety of jobs, including as a construction manager. In 1990, she and her husband, Robert Hoch (an engineer), moved to the Greene County town of Jewett. Their house lies in the shadow of Black Dome Mountain, the second highest peak in the county.


“I had some contacts in Albany but the idea of opening a publishing house sort of came out of nowhere,” says Allen. “Hope Farm Press [now based in Saugerties] had become available, and we bid on it. We didn’t get it, which turned out to be a good thing. A lot of the material was in bookstore inventory. Instead of learning about publishing, I would have been running a store.”


Instead, she started Black Dome Press, with her neighboring mountain as namesake. When she discovered that Roland Van Zandt’s classic history, The Catskill Mountain House (originally published in the 1970s), was out of print, she decided to reissue it as her inaugural project. “This was such a major book,” she says, “and it was just languishing out there. I wanted to start the press with an important piece of New York State history. It turned out that he had other offers at the same time, but he chose us. I don’t understand how we were so lucky!


“It also allowed us to learn about publishing in a less frantic way,” adds Allen. “All we really had to do was redesign the cover and focus on marketing the book. We didn’t have to know everything all at once.” (She has always relied on local talent for copyediting, typesetting, and graphic design.)


With the publication of The Catskill Mountain House, Black Dome Press became a potent voice for the Hudson Valley. This year’s publication, Historic Hudson: The Architectural Portrait, is its 60th book. Two of its offerings have been commended by a special joint resolution of the New York State Legislature: The Greene County Catskills, the first history of the county in over 100 years, and The Mill. Another book, Mountaintop & Valley,  received the Heritage Award from the New York State Historical Association.


Unlike most book publishers, Allen’s participation doesn’t end with shipping a book. The launch and marketing are an integral part of the process. “History is the staff of life. It is so exciting. We try to make people understand why these books are so important, and we do it by relating them to current activities, events, or happenings,” she says. For the publication of Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide, Allen organized a trek to show how modern technology made it possible for readers to recreate the footsteps of 19th-century hikers. For another book, she worked with the Hudson River Maritime Museum on a special exhibition, “A Tale of Two Ports: Kingston and Newburgh.”


In addition to Black Dome Press, Allen is an involved Valley citizen. She has served on Jewett’s zoning board of appeals and its planning board. She is on the board of governors for Thomas Cole’s Cedar Grove and is a past director of the Mountain Top Historical Society. For several years, she was also one of two town judges, presiding over the weekly court. “The really fun thing,” she admits, “was being able to marry people.”

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