On Nov. 6, 1941, Union College president Dixon Ryan Fox unveiled a 9-foot bronze statue of Chester A. Arthur and proclaimed to a large gathering on hand at the Nott Memorial, “Union College’s only president of the United States — so far.”
Eighty years later, the Schenectady school, one of the oldest in New York, is still waiting to produce another commander-in-chief. Still, Union and the Capital Region’s other major colleges can boast an impressive list of alumni that would make any academician proud.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Siena College in Loudonville, the University at Albany and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs may not have a U.S. president among their ranks, but each has turned out leaders of national prominence, men and women who are now at the top of their field in the areas of medicine, law, science, politics, literature and business. To many of them — some of them Capital Region natives — the time they spent at these area institutions was just what they needed to succeed in life on the big stage.
plenty of options
Some of them knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives, and others, like many 18-year-olds, were unsure of how their futures would unfold.
“I didn’t know, and that’s why I went and got a liberal arts education,” said James Scully, a 1987 Siena College grad and
chief administrative officer and chief financial officer for the J Crew Group, which sells clothing apparel in 81 stores around the country, is headquartered in New York City and had an estimated worth of $128 million in 2010. “Even today, in my mid-40s, I’m still surprised at how valuable my liberal arts degree is. We were well-rounded in a variety of subjects, and the problem-solving skills, the analytical and writing skills I learned at Siena have really helped me. I literally didn’t take one business course during my undergrad days, and I still like to use that line on the business majors I run into.”
Unlike Scully, Steven J. Sasson, inventor of the digital camera for Eastman-Kodak in Rochester, had a good idea of what he wanted to do with his life, and he felt RPI was the perfect college choice for him.
“It seemed like we all shared a common interest there, and for me, it was nice to be around people who thought the way I did,” said Sasson, a Brooklyn native who graduated from RPI in 1972 and received a patent for his groundbreaking technology in 1978. “I always had an interest in science and engineering, and I knew I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I almost went to Brooklyn Polytech, but I thought it’d be nice to get out of the city, so I felt very lucky when I got admitted to RPI. It was a very pleasant experience.”
New ways of thinking
Like Sasson, Alexei Erchak had a scientific mind, but Saratoga Springs was home, his father was a professor at Skidmore (which meant free tuition) and he really didn’t know what specific field he would be best suited for.
“I was a bit indecisive on what I wanted to do, and Skidmore provided a diversity of courses that helped me make that decision,” said Erchak, a 1997 graduate and founder and chief technology officer for Luminus Devices, a Boston-based company that develops and manufactures high-performance lighting sources for illumination applications, including high-definition televisions and video projectors. “I ended up doing a double major in math and physics, and while there weren’t too many of us in those areas at Skidmore, it really worked out well for me. I know it’s a bit odd and I could have gone to a more traditional engineering school, but I was very happy at Skidmore.”
Erchak went on to get a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he never second-guessed his decision to stay near home and go to Skidmore.
“Skidmore allowed me to think creatively, and that was the most important attribute you need when you’re starting a company,” said Erchak, whose company did about $10 million in business in 2010, a figure he expects to double this year. “I got individual attention, and it gave me everything I needed that allowed me to go in any direction I chose.”
Dave Balter, who invested $30,000 of his own money 10 years ago to start a company, BzzAgent, and sold it earlier this month for $60 million, feels the same way about his four years at Skidmore.
“I was a psychology major, but you never felt like you were in a discipline at Skidmore,” said Balter, a Boston native and 1987 graduate. “You had freedom of thought, and even though psychology might be your major, it didn’t mean you were going to be a psychiatrist. I felt like anything was possible, and while I never practiced psychology, I immediately applied the skills I learned at Skidmore to understanding people’s behavior and how to run a business. It was invaluable.”
Richard C. Wesley, a native of Livonia, near Rochester, headed to the University at Albany in 1967 thinking he was going to become a history teacher. Instead, he turned to the law and is now judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
“My faculty advisor, Richard Kendall, told me when we were discussing my major that history teachers were going to be a dime a dozen,” said Wesley, “and he thought I should start thinking about something else. I had some great history professors there, like Warren Roberts, but I went to the Albany City Court just to watch a few proceedings and that really got me interested in the law.”
Neither of Wesley’s parents attended college, although an older brother had gone to the State University of New York at Fredonia and become an English teacher.
“My parents were both products of the Great Depression and the second World War,” said Wesley. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so I was just hoping I could go to the best school in the SUNY system. I’d been told that was either Buffalo or Albany, and I didn’t want to go to Buffalo.”
For 1985 Union College graduate Kathy E. Magliato, one of the few female cardiothoracic surgeons in the world, the decision to spend four years in Schenectady was an easy one. Her father had gone to Union, as had her uncle and her older sister, a 1981 graduate.
“I had filled out a lot of applications, and had looked at many major universities, and then I went on a visit to Union with my father,” remembered Magliato, who grew up in Highland in the Hudson Valley. “We stood in the middle of the campus near the Nott Memorial and as we looked at this amazing institution, my father looked at me and said, ‘this could all be yours.’ I knew right then it was the place for me.”
After her four years at Union, Magliota went to medical school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She is now director of women’s cardiac services at Saint John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif., and serves on the board of trustees at Union College.
“When my two sons are older, I’m going to take them to that same spot on the Union campus and tell them what my father told me,” said Magliota, who has written a book, “Heart Matters,” and has been featured as an expert on heart disease on ABC, CBS and NBC. “Your college choice is the cornerstone for the rest of your life. I know what Union did for me, and it will always have a special place in my heart.”
Founded in 1795, it’s not surprising that Union’s list of notable alumni is hard to match.
Along with Arthur, a member of the class of 1848, Union’s list of notables includes William H. Seward (class of 1820) and Robert Toombs (class of 1828). Seward, an Auburn native, was governor of New York and a U.S. senator before becoming secretary of state during the Civil War for President Abraham Lincoln. Toombs, a U.S. senator from South Carolina, was his counterpart in the Confederate cabinet of Jefferson Davis.
Also adding to Union’s involvement in the Civil War was 1837 graduate Henry Halleck, Lincoln’s general-in-chief of all Union forces during the first two years of the war.
More recently, Union College has produced R. Gordon Gould (class of 1941), inventor of the laser; Baruch Samuel Blumberg (1946), winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine; Ted Berger (1976), biomedical pioneer and developer of the bionic brain; Richard Templeton (1980), CEO of Texas Instruments; and Sue Goldie (1982), public health researcher and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship grant.
RPI was founded in 1824 by Stephen Van Rensselaer, and in addition to Sasson, it has an impressive list of alumni including space pioneer George Low (class of 1948), Ferris wheel inventor George Ferris (1881) and civil engineer Washington A. Roebling (1857). Low worked with NASA for 26 years before becoming RPI president in 1976. Director of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 two days before he died.
Ferris, meanwhile, made a living in the railroad, steel and bridge building businesses. In 1893, when Chicago was hosting the World’s Columbia Exposition, organizers challenged American engineers to come up with something to rival the Eiffel Tower. Ferris responded with his Ferris wheel.
Roebling fought for the Union army during the Civil War after graduating from RPI, then went on to design and oversee the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Also, RPI grad and Schenectady resident Ivar Giaever (1964) earned a Nobel Prize in physics in 1973 while working at General Electric.
UAlbany was created in 1844 as an independent teachers college, became the New York State Normal School in 1890 and was known as Albany State when the SUNY system was formed in 1948. It has produced numerous and prominent educators, along with politician/gay activist Harvey Milk (class of 1951) and authors Joseph Persico (1952) and Gregory Maguire (1976).
Persico is a historian with several books to his credit, including Colin Powell’s autobiography, while Maguire wrote the book “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Lucy Ann Skidmore started up the Young Women’s Industrial Club in Saratoga Springs in 1903 and in 1911 changed the school’s name to Skidmore School of Arts. By 1922, the school was a four-year, fully accredited college; it began accepting men in 1971.
Sallie “Penny” Chisholm from the class of 1969 was a pioneer in the field of marine microbes, Betsy Lowe (1976) founded The Wild Center in Tupper Lake and Tracy L. Pearse-Young (1997) is working to find a cure for Alzheimer’s at Harvard Medical School.
Siena, founded in 1937, can look at Scully’s success in the business field and that of Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy (class of 1949) in literature and U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson (1986) in politics.