A shrewd investment in his industrial arts education has paid hefty dividends in his manufacturing career.
Just to be clear: George Wurtz III ’78, president and CEO of Soundview Paper Co. LLC, fully intended to teach industrial arts after graduating from Oswego. Hardwired with his grandfather’s love of woodworking and machinery, Wurtz had graduated from a premier high-school industrial arts program. He had turned down offers to play football for Penn State and Army in order to enroll at Oswego. He had worked grueling summer construction jobs to pay his tuition in cash.
In 1978, industrial arts education degree in hand, Wurtz was ready to roll. He was weighing job offers from two school districts when Miller Brewing in Fulton offered him an inventory control job at twice the salary. Wurtz made a decisive course correction and followed the money—and a hunch that manufacturing might be an even better fit.
A Home Run?
While student teaching in Valley Stream, Wurtz sensed a red flag. His trailblazing lesson plan required students to design a product, then form a company to build and sell it. “The students loved it. They asked for extra lab time,” Wurtz remembers. “It looked like a home run.”
The school’s administrators made a different call: “You’re not a business teacher,” they scolded Wurtz. “You’re an industrial arts teacher.”
Fortunately, the manufacturing industry embraced such ingenuity. Wurtz shakes his head when he remembers his first meeting with Miller Brewing. “The interview date changed at the last minute. I had planned to get a haircut and wear a suit. Instead I had to go straight from the Industrial Arts lab, looking like Jeremiah Johnson with my long hair and overalls.”
“This was after the Vietnam War, and there was a shortage of engineers,” explains Wurtz.
“Industry was recruiting from ‘tech programs,’ and Oswego had one of the best in the country.
“An industrial arts degree looked a lot like a degree in mechanical engineering, with hands-on math, chemistry and physics labs,” he reports. “A number of my classmates went into industry instead of the classroom.”
The Scenic Route
Thirty-five years—and 17 address changes—later, it’s tough to imagine the larger-than-life Wurtz on any other trajectory. He spent almost a decade with Phillip Morris, the parent company of Miller Brewing. “It was like earning a Ph.D. in executive management,” he says. “I worked under industry icons. My ears were as big as Dumbo’s, taking it all in.”
In 1987, Wurtz was recruited into towel and tissue manufacturing, a subset of forest products, the nation’s third largest industry. He spent the next 15 years helping to build Fort James, home to such household brands as Brawny and Dixie Cups. When Georgia Pacific bought Fort James for $7.5 billion, Wurtz helped guide the merger then joined the new company in Atlanta, Ga.
Within a few years, Wurtz was second in command at Georgia Pacific. As executive vice president of pulp and paper, he was responsible for seven companies, 10,000 employees, and $6 billion in annual sales.
“I learned a lot working at the decision-making level of giant companies,” he says. “I discovered I loved mergers and acquisitions. But I always dreamed of walking away and creating smaller, leaner, more nimble companies, managed by hands-on investors who were also seasoned practitioners.”
The opportunity to lead his dream company came last year, when Wurtz, with equity investment firm Atlas Holdings, purchased Marcal Paper Co., a storied New Jersey towel and tissue company on the brink of closure.
In 2006, Wurtz—by then an industry icon—stepped away from corporate life when Koch Industries acquired Georgia Pacific. After decades in the fast lane, he hoped to spend more time with his wife, Nancy. “‘Miss Nancy,’ as they say in Atlanta, is my true love,” Wurtz says, “along with my daughter, Jacqueline, who has three wonderful boys under 4, and my son, George IV, who carries on the towel-and-tissue tradition.”
Wurtz also looked forward to stretches of time in his woodworking shop and aboard his 60-foot fishing boat. “My ideal day involves hooking a 1,000-pound tuna,” he explains. “But when that didn’t happen every day, I grew restless.”
High-energy Wurtz went back to work as CEO of WinCup in Stone Mountain, Ga., a massive but troubled supplier of foam cups, straws and other food service disposables. “I’d never
been associated with a company in bankruptcy,” he reports, “and I discovered I love fixing broken stuff.”
Wurtz was trolling for other stressed companies when Marcal Paper in Elmwood, N.J., caught his eye. “A product like toilet tissue isn’t going away,” he believes. “You can’t (digitalize or) cloud it. And China can’t compete in our market, because it’s not profitable to ship.”
The Lure of Marcal
When Wurtz and Atlas Holdings purchased Marcal in 2012, the floundering company had nearly lost sight of its proud history. Marcal was founded in 1928 by a resourceful Sicilian immigrant, Nicolas Marcalus, whose 17 patents include the jagged metal edge used to cut waxed paper and the first automatic toilet tissue winder.
Marcal, which pioneered the use of recycled paper to make towels and tissue, flourished for 70 years. In 2001, the family-run business borrowed $125 million for a new paper machine—a wise investment, it seemed, until 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina knocked the wind out of the economy. A few years later, the bank called in the Marcal loan.
In 2007, on the brink of bankruptcy, the family sold to venture capitalists, who planned to take the regional company national. “Going national wasn’t the answer,” according to Wurtz. “Thirty-eight percent of the domestic towel and tissue market lies within 500 miles of the Marcal plant.”
“The company had a lot of pride but lost its way,” Wurtz believes. “By the time we took over, its workforce was emotionally decimated.
“We had to let 100 people go, but we saved 500 jobs,” he reports. “Those workers are this company’s greatest asset. Many are immigrants from Eastern Europe. The typical employee has been here for 18 years and most likely has a father, brother or sister who works here.”
The outgoing, straight-shooting Wurtz now spends much of his time mingling with Marcal employees. On his daily walkabouts, he covers an average of 3.5 miles and greets almost every employee by name. “These workers have done nothing but work hard for Marcal, even as many lost their pensions,” says Wurtz. “I love ’em to death.”
From the Nest
Part of this allegiance dates back to Wurtz’s down-to-earth Long Island childhood. He and four siblings (including Kevin ’79 and Thomas ’92) were instilled with a strong work ethic. Each child was allowed to play one sport and expected to hold a job during its off-seasons. (Wurtz worked on a commercial fishing boat).
“My father was a union worker for the public utility company,” Wurtz says. “He’s always reminded me that ‘Joe Hourly’ will make or break you. Success doesn’t happen in the executive suite.
“Football also taught me that you’re only as good as the guys behind you,” he adds. “From my corporate years, I learned that, if you’re not making it or selling it, you are overhead.”
On a recent tour of the one-square-mile Marcal campus, Wurtz was walking the talk. At one point, the strolling CEO and a recycling truck approached the same intersection. Wurtz gave the driver a friendly salute. The driver stopped, smiled, and gestured for his boss to go ahead.
“No, you go ahead,” Wurtz chuckled. “I’m paying you.”
On a Roll
Since Soundview took charge, the Marcal plant has operated three shifts a day, seven days a week. Volume has increased by 22 percent. Equity investors have earned 44 percent dividends. Employees recently received their first gain-sharing checks. In December, Soundview purchased a second paper plant, Pultney Paper in Vermont.
The Soundview company carries no debt. Fifty percent of profits are invested in operations. “We pay it forward,” Wurtz explains. “When we buy a stressed company, our goal is not to buy, fix, and sell. Our goal is to buy, get it going, and keep it going.
“We came into Marcal making huge promises,” Wurtz reflects. “Now we’re delivering on these promises—and regaining a lot of trust.
“Saving jobs is at the heart of our work,” he says. “For decades, our country’s manufacturing base and its middle class have been eroding. But the American spirit is still alive. You see it when we pull together after events like 9-11, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing.
“Americans are very productive people,” says Wurtz. “I believe we have a strong shot at reviving manufacturing.”
A strong shot indeed, if that revival is fueled by towel-and-tissue titan George Wurtz ’78, with his boots-on-the-ground leadership style, wide-angle view, and ever-versatile Oswego degree in industrial arts education.
Long-Range Lesson Plan:
Unbeknownst to George Wurtz III ’78, Oswego was preparing him to embrace the unexpected.
George Wurtz never used his Oswego degree in the classroom, but it’s been a priceless asset in his corporate career. “Industrial arts is the perfect training ground for manufacturing,” he says. “Everything I learned in industrial arts education applies to running a company. They taught us to be good managers without calling it management.
“We learned to create lesson plans, which are essentially business plans. We learned to establish objectives, to control costs, and to measure progress. We learned that good leadership is about good teaching—emphasizing what’s going well and teaching what could be even better.”
To acknowledge Oswego, George serves on its Engineering Advisory Board, shares executive suite insights on sharpening Oswego’s competitive edge and has established an Engineering Excellence Fund. And as a featured guest in the Alumni-in-Residence Program, he likes to underscore the enduring importance of Oswego relationships. “In college, you grow socially as well as academically. My best friends are still my college friends,” he reports.
Those college friendships may evolve into professional relationships.
Wurtz and Ron Schulman ’77, who crossed paths early in their manufacturing careers, recently reconnected through LinkedIn. “One thing led to another,” says Wurtz, “and Ron is now our comptroller at Soundview.”
Speaking of the unexpected: rugby represents another surprise turn in Wurtz’s life. In 1974, the 6-foot-3-inch middle linebacker arrived at Oswego ready to play football, only to learn the program had been cut. The skeptical freshman, who had been recruited by Penn State and Army, reluctantly joined Oswego’s rugby team. Almost 40 years later, Wurtz—a master of corporate mergers —still considers this his favorite.
“The rugby players taught us how to laugh, and we taught them how to tackle. After the game, you sing songs and drink beer with your opponents,” he says. “My rugby friends remain my closest friends. Many still play every summer in the CanAm Rugby Tournament.”
When Kevin Gilman ’74, the coach/catalyst of this spirited group, passed away in 2009, the rugby bond grew even stronger. Wurtz spearheaded the establishment of an endowed memorial scholarship and rugby fund to honor his friend.
“There is such cool camaraderie in rugby: part fraternity, part family,” says Wurtz. “I’ve learned it’s the greatest game ever played.”
Approached at dusk, it’s a breathtaking sight—SUNY Oswego’s landmark building bathed in a splendid luster. The cupola is suffused with a stunning glow, taking its place among the stars far above the campus and city.
The Normal Building. Old Main. Sheldon Hall. Whatever name alumni remember it by, Oswego’s signature structure marks a 100-year milestone in 2013 with a return to its former glory.
The college’s historic home has been repaired and renewed in a $10 million exterior renovation. A capital project paid for by New York State and overseen by the State University Construction Fund, the restoration demanded historical authenticity.
Architects and SUNY Oswego staff members pored over vintage photos of the neo-classical building; they drilled holes in bricks to determine details of its construction, and they wielded modern tools like lasers to replicate its unique appearance.
The new copper roof, already achieving a slight patina, is illuminated by lights trained on the cupola, which, for the first time in decades, displays four working clocks. A period-appropriate weather vane tracks Oswego’s legendary gusts from atop Old Main’s tower.
Fourteen crumbling cement front steps have been replaced with granite, and the six Corinthian columns have fresh shells of terracotta. Five original re-paned windows top white oak replicas of the doors that invited the first occupants to classes.
“It is wonderful to have Sheldon Hall, which is so intertwined with the college’s identity, finally and fully restored,” said President Deborah F. Stanley, who spearheaded the restoration of Oswego’s landmark.
“The grand old building now greets our prospective undergraduates and their families as they visit the Admissions Office there. We’re putting our best foot forward. Sheldon Hall is a beautiful manifestation of our proud history while, next door on Washington Boulevard, the new and equally impressive Shineman Center embodies our emphasis on innovation.”
It’s history worth preserving, according to Bob Lloyd ’81 M ’89 of Oswego’s Facilities Design and Construction department, who worked on the historical project from 2010 to its 2013 completion.
Lloyd said workers replacing the “cheek walls”—limestone demi-walls flanking the front steps—discovered wires and conduit meant for light poles. Reviewing historic photos, they replicated vintage lamps that formerly graced the entryway.
The east pergola, which sheltered Normalites all the way to Washington Boulevard and the trolley stop, is updated with white, cedar-topped fiberglass posts.
The exterior was pressure-washed with solvents safe for antique materials, and broken bricks were replaced with exact replicas. Mortar was mixed in small batches to achieve a perfect match. Energy-efficient reproductions replaced 430 windows.
Alumni learned of plans for the building at the college’s semi-centennial celebration and alumni gathering of 1911. Principal Isaac B. Poucher told them, “There is no such thing as stand still in our vocabulary; there is no such thing as inertia of mind.”
Poucher had raised the need for a new building a half-dozen years earlier, according to Tim Nekritz M ’05 of SUNY Oswego’s Public Affairs Office, who detailed the story in his unpublished history of the college’s first 150 years. It is a story of delays and red tape, bringing the work on the $300,000 building right down to the wire for its September 1913 opening.
With $25,000 appropriated by the state legislature, college officials purchased land along the lakeshore, including founder Edward Austin Sheldon’s home at Shady Shore.
Faculty helped draft plans, with the blueprints drawn up by Franklin B. Ware, the state architect: an H-shaped edifice with the west wing for the Normal School classes, the east wing for the Practice School, and a grand auditorium and gymnasium in the center.
The structure was seen as a monument to Poucher. In his article on the principal in History of the First Half Century of Oswego State Normal and Training School, Amos W. Farnham 1875 wrote, “The new Normal School building, which is now ready for equipment on Ontario Heights, is Dr. Poucher’s visible monument, which, like a city set on a hill, cannot be hid.”
The Hon. Patrick W. Cullinan, an Oswego attorney and former state assemblyman, speaking at the laying of the cornerstone, may have foreshadowed the future naming when he said, “The State of New York has assented to a most liberal appropriation for the erection upon this spot a temple of learning worthy of the fame which the Oswego Normal and Training School justly enjoys…a memorial of that great educator who consecrated his life to the cause of education and whose name is inseparably identified with the Oswego School.”
At the college’s Centennial celebration in 1961, Old Main was renamed Sheldon Hall in honor of the Founder.
Less than a decade after opening, during World War I, the Normal Building was home to a Student Army Training Corps, graduating 400 auto mechanics, blacksmiths, pipefitters and telephone linesmen, according to evidence uncovered by Nekritz.
A 1918 pamphlet, To The Boys Overseas and Half the Seas Over, reads: “Every morning at 6:30 the bugle blows ‘Reveille;’ and 200 men form in front of the building for the raising of the flag. At seven o’clock they are in their classrooms.”
The auditorium fire of Jan. 18, 1941, is burned into the memory of many alumni.
Al Johns ’42 and his future wife, Ruth, emerged from the movies that night to empty streets. “We went up there and saw the fire in action. After that the building was pretty well filled with smoke, and the student body was asked to help clean up and wash the woodwork and furniture during that week following,” Johns said.
Barbara Brown McCormack ’44 said, “The night that Sheldon Hall burned, I was home in bed. My father came up the stairs and said, ‘Where is your violin?’ I said, ‘At school.’ He said, ‘It is gone’.” Ruined were a Steinway grand piano, a $1600 Hammond organ, and students’ instruments.
“What was rescued?” asked McCormack. “My violin. Apparently the case was fireproof.” With the help of Dr. Lloyd Sunderland, chair of the music department, she had the violin repaired and at graduation in 1944 she played it, accompanied by her mother, Helen Picken Brown ’18.
Nekritz also writes of a suspected arson in the library in 1950. Amid burned matches and furniture cushions, investigators found an empty frame that had held an oil portrait, valued at $2,400, of former president Ralph W. Swetman.
The restored auditorium remained a focus of college life until the building was temporarily closed.
“Every day we had to go there first,” recalled Betty Reid Gallik ’45, speaking of chapel. “We would have a little ceremony before classes and say a prayer. They checked to make sure we were there.”
Davis Parker ’47, Beta Tau Epsilon dance chair, remembers sharing the stage with President Swetman to announce the first intrafraternity dance. “It was a big deal to get the frats together.”
Parker recalls wartime gas rationing was in effect. “There was a big confab as to whether people would drive. It was decided that if you couldn’t walk there, it was OK to drive to the dance.”
Alumni remember the iconic front steps, depending on their generation, as a place for graduation, class photos, watching homecoming parades, or senior toasts.
Betty Gallik has vivid memories of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt there. As president of the Women’s Athletic Association, she was invited, along with the late Betty Burden ’45 and M. Carol McLaughlin ’45, to greet the First Lady.
Parker recalls having geography with Isabel Kingsbury Hart 1907 and psychology with Donald Snygg in Room 100, known now as the historic classroom, with its tiered rows seating 77. For Betty and Bill Gallik ’47 Snygg’s lecture was their only shared class and the scene of an embarrassing incident. “I was feeling my beads around my neck and didn’t the pearls break!” Betty said, describing falling pearls. “And Dr. Snygg said, ‘I’m sure Betty would appreciate it if someone would help pick them up’.” Bill came to her rescue.
The modern era
The 100,000-square-foot building, placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1980, exceeded the state formula for funding, according to a history compiled by Robert Schell, emeritus associate dean of students. The Office of General Services issued a call for proposals, and the Sarkisian Brothers firm soon began to turn Old Main into a conference center and hotel.
Sheldon’s historic status required interior doorways, windows and moldings be maintained in original style. The auditorium was converted into a ballroom and banquet facility, and the gymnasium became a hotel lobby, with a porte cochere added to the north side for arriving guests.
In the late 1990s, legal issues caused the developers to discontinue the project, and the state turned the building back to the college. It was rededicated to Oswego’s use in September 1998 on the eve of President Deborah F. Stanley’s inauguration.
“It was clear at the outset of this administration that bringing Sheldon Hall back to the college was a priority for members of our campus and alumni community,” President Stanley said. “It had been vacant or in the hands of others since 1983—it seemed our heritage was no longer our own. So, we worked to find means to restore the building’s iconic look and made plans for it to have purposes that fulfilled its original central role in new ways.”
President Stanley said Sheldon Hall is now brimming with life around the clock as a multi-use building. It has classrooms for the School of Education, residential rooms for students, daycare and playground for children, a chamber music series and other special events in the auditorium, and administrative offices for offices of Admissions, International Education, and University Development.
“What makes it so wonderful,” President Stanley said, “is that when you walk through Sheldon Hall today, you absorb the history of our institution in every corridor and doorway, while you also encounter its future around every corner.”
With the renovation complete, tradition and vision are united in the “Temple of Learning” we know as Sheldon Hall.
On one hand, the story of SUNY Oswego’s endowment is one of numbers—how the gifts made from generous donors to the Oswego College Foundation have been wisely managed to support the institution. On the other hand, it is a story of people—how alumni, faculty and friends give generously; how the Foundation Board members, stewards of the fund, manage those gifts, and how Oswego students and faculty members ultimately benefit.
Wise Investing, Good Stewardship
Oswego’s endowment stands at more than $15 million dollars, a powerful force for good that benefits the college’s students, faculty and staff in myriad ways every day.
It has grown from $4 million in 2004 — a more than threefold increase — thanks to Oswego’s generous supporters and the wise stewardship of the Oswego College Foundation and its Investment Committee, headed for many years by the late Tom Lenihan ’76.
“State budgets have been plummeting, so for education it is vital that the Oswego College Foundation step up to raise money for those empty spots in the budget every year to maintain a quality institution,” said Dr. Harold Morse ’61 of the foundation board’s investment committee.
Morse added that the endowment provides “additional basic support to everybody at the college through more scholarships, improved facilities, quality faculty and research.”
The foundation’s investment committee members monitor the performance of investment fund managers, manage the asset allocation of the Foundation’s investments, make an annual recommendation of the spending rate, and recommend all changes in investment relations and procedures.
The committee looks at each fund and its long-term spending goal. They consider the need to generate sufficient returns to make the desired annual awards and to keep pace with inflation.
The goal, according to the Oswego College Foundation’s Director of Finance Mark Slayton, is to generate long-term annual returns in the 8 to 9 percent range, since an endowment typically spends 5 percent each year.
“We have been able to do that over a 10-year window,” Slayton says.
Oswego’s 10-year return rate is 8.2 percent—even given the 2008 crash of the financial markets.
Oswego’s endowment has consistently shown earnings ranking in the top 10 percent of nearly 500 participants in an annual study conducted by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). Of the 493 institutions that reported their 10-year rate of return from the years 2003 to 2012, Oswego ranked 51st, higher than universities with multi-billion dollar endowments such as Princeton and Stanford.
In fact, in eight of the last 10 years Oswego has outperformed the industry average, including the six straight years ended June 30, 2012.
When broken down into smaller time periods, Oswego’s performance is even more impressive. For the last five years, Oswego earned 4.2 percent, ranking 23rd of 666 institutions completing the report, or in the top 3 percent. Three-year data shows Oswego’s increase at 13.5 percent, placing the college 25th of 705 institutions, or the top 4 percent.
“The Investment Committee and Board of Directors took decisive action in the summer and fall of 2008 when the world economy was in a free fall. That’s really the year that set us apart from the rest of the endowment world,” explained Slayton.
Oswego’s loss that year was only 10.9 percent versus an industry average of 18.7 percent, according to the NACUBO report.
But as any successful investor knows, preserving principal isn’t enough. You also need to increase it.
So, as early as November 2008, the Investment Committee began to strategically re-engage the equity markets to take advantage of the recovery. As a result, Oswego’s endowed funds have each now fully recovered and exceed their pre-crash levels.
All Above Water
The other outcome of the Investment Committee’s successful work was in the area of underwater funds. That’s when a fund is underperforming to the point where it is worth less than its original principal.
Half a decade after the stock market crash, many not-for-profits are still struggling with underwater funds. The Oswego College Foundation’s experience with underwater funds was brief and insignificant. The fund has carried no underwater funds at all since 2010.
“The success of Oswego’s endowment is not only due to the prudent oversight of our investments over the years but to our board taking decisive action and doing something unconventional,” said Slayton.
In summer of 2008, Oswego was just coming out of the successful Inspiring Horizons campaign, which raised nearly $24 million to support the college. “We wanted to do everything we could to protect those investments our alumni and friends had made in Oswego’s future,” said Slayton. The board carefully watched the markets and began to reduce our allocation in equities even before the crash of September 2008.
“After much conversation, the board adopted a very conservative approach and it paid off very well for us,” Slayton said.
Much of that success was due to the masterful leadership of Tom Lenihan ’76, who chaired the Investment Committee for nearly seven years until his untimely death in March.
Lenihan graduated from Oswego with a degree in economics and computer science. While at Oswego, he met the love of his life, Lynn Van Order Lenihan ’76. They were married in 1976 and have two children, Brian and Colleen.
Tom Lenihan retired from MetLife after 30 years with the organization, having risen to the position of managing director for investment management and capital markets. It was that expertise he put to the service of Oswego’s endowment.
Tom and Lynn Lenihan were steadfast supporters of their alma mater for more than a quarter century. They were lead donors for the Inspiring Horizons campaign, and supported the Campus Center and the Possibility Scholarship program. Tom and Lynn served as Reunion Giving Chair for their 25th anniversary class reunion and spearheaded the revitalization of the college’s reunion giving program, in addition to Tom’s membership on the Oswego College Foundation Board of Directors.
‘Labor of Love’
In June 2012, the Oswego College Foundation board honored Lenihan for his “dedicated steadfast leadership” of the Investment Committee, noting he deserved “recognition and accolades for his tireless efforts.”
“We were privileged to have the benefit of his guiding interest,” said President Deborah F. Stanley. “The future of this institution is stronger and more secure due to Tom’s unwavering commitment to his alma mater, especially as the dedicated steward of our endowment.”
Foundation Board Chairman Bill Spinelli ’84 concurred. “Tom kept a vigilant watch on market conditions, opportunities and challenges to extract the most beneficial position for the Foundation’s investments and assets,” he said.
During his tenure, Lenihan always humbly deferred to his colleagues’ contributions, calling the work of the entire committee a “labor of love.”
“Tom, in his humble way, never accepted personal recognition but would say it was the work of the entire committee,” said Kerry Casey Dorsey ’81, vice president for development and alumni relations and president of the Oswego College Foundation. “But in his sailing vernacular, he was the captain of that ship.”
“Every time the markets dipped or moneys got short, Tom would also give us a great talk at board meetings — how we have this huge responsibility to Oswego to rise to the occasion,” recalled Morse. “Particularly when we had the recession, he led the effort to help prevent any of the scholarship funds from going underwater at that time. He made us feel that we had a responsibility not only to watch everything but also to fix it.”
“The vigilance that he provided in overseeing that everything was all right was outstanding,” added Morse. “I’ve been on several boards and have never seen anyone who was so responsible.”
Lenihan’s “labor of love” stemmed from a genuine affection for his alma mater and its students.
“Tom would say, ‘These are our brothers and sisters and we have to take care of them,’” said Morse. “It’s how we all felt on the board.”
That empathy comes from personal experience. The vast majority of the board members are alumni, and some faced obstacles to fulfill their own educational dreams. They may have worked to earn money for tuition or books, and some benefited from the generosity of donors.
The empathy and commitment the board has for Oswego’s students, coupled with their knowledge of financial markets and their dedication to their fiduciary responsibility to the college are all part of the winning combination the Investment Committee brings to their stewardship of Oswego’s endowment – the art and science of investing success.
Preparing for a photo shoot backstage at Waterman Theatre, Hollywood stuntwoman Joanna Shelmidine ’89 starts pulling gear out of her stunt bag — fireproof clothing, hip and back pads, body harness … and a little box, like a child’s pencil case, full of matchbox cars. There are a sports car, ambulance, motorcycle, three tiny cop cars and more, stashed alongside a few pieces of colored chalk. “Oh those?” she says with grin. “We use them when planning out a driving stunt.” The stunt coordinator and stunt drivers get on hands and knees with the director to chalk out the scene on the pavement (or more often now, using a printout from Google maps), simulating the action with the miniature vehicles — over and over again — to be sure that everyone understands the shot so they can be in the right place at the right time and execute the stunt safely and precisely, she explains. “We want to be all on the same page, no surprises,” she says.
The planning, the tiny cars and the protective gear in that duffel bag sum up the stunt world according to Shelmidine. “It’s not about being a daredevil. It’s not about facing down fear,” she says emphatically. “It’s about precision and safety.”
As she dons those gloves – which she wears in honor of the famous stuntman who previously owned them – along with the pads and harnesses, we watch a magical transformation. Petite and lovely, with flowing dark locks, a dazzling smile and the body of an athlete, here Shelmidine is in her comfort zone and her comfort zone is action. She slips in protective pads under her clothing to cushion the falls, dive rolls and even car hits. She laces up the stiff leather ankle boots with traction soles that help her run, dodge and land on her feet.
One look at her IMDB entry and you know why she needs the gear. Her resume bullets include crashing a Jeep Wagoneer into an RV, getting chased by bulls, driving as a
NYC cop and falling into a hole. For the HBO series “The Sopranos,” she performed fire stunts, fights and a near miss with a car.
Her most recent work was in CBS’s “Blue Bloods” and Fox’s “The Following” starring Kevin Bacon. She took a hit directly from Bacon in the seventh episode of this season, “Let Me Go,” and has a close encounter with him in the upcoming episode, “The End is Near.”
Unlike the stars of the movies she works on, it’s never “about” Shelmidine. She’s hesitant to have the camera focus on her face today, because in the movies, it rarely does. As a stunt double for famous actresses like America Ferrera in “Ugly Betty,” Hilary Duff in “Greta” and Cathy Cahlin Ryan in the FX show “Justified,” Shelmidine is anonymous. A shape-shifter, she was transformed into an Afghani woman for “Charlie Wilson’s War”, an Asian lady for Jet Li’s “The One” and a young boy for “Rocket Science.”
Even as she performs the most intricate stunts, simulating death-defying action, she must be careful to obscure her face from the lens. She may have to snap her head away from the camera at a key moment, or flip her shoulder-length brunette hair across her face at just the right time.
Her resume includes her height, weight, inseam, and shoe and dress sizes, so stunt coordinators and directors can pair her with actresses of similar size and shape. The wardrobe department prepares identical clothing for the star and Shelmidine, and in her case, multiple sets of the same outfit since they often get dirty, torn or burned in the course of performing multiple takes of the action.
There’s a lot of acting included with the action. “My whole goal is to get my body, whether in a fire, fight or punch, in the way an actress would do it, not an athlete,” Shelmidine explains. “So that it will look like the actress did it, not Joanna Shelmidine, the stuntwoman.”
In the editing, the footage of the stunt gets chopped up, and scenes with the actress’s face added, thereby adding to the anonymity of the stunt performer.
But that’s all OK. She’s not in it for the glory, Shelmidine assures us. “[Stunt work] is a lot less about bravery or being bold,” she says. “It’s more about being precise, professional, showing up the right size and on time. Make sure your pads don’t show, your face isn’t revealed in the frame and you hit your mark.”
A stunt person may have to do a stunt several times in a scene where five cameras are getting the shot from four different angles plus a master. “You have to land in the right spot for all five cameras to capture the stunt. If you fall out of your frame line, they can’t use that footage any more, costing production time and money.”
Today, backstage at Waterman, this Hollywood fixture seems a little star-struck herself. Shelmidine hasn’t been back in Tyler Hall since graduating more than 20 years ago, and for her, this is where it all began. A visit as a high schooler to the Theatre Festival in April of her junior year convinced Shelmidine the theatre was her world and Oswego was the place to launch herself into it.
Standing on stage, looking out upon the rows of red theatre seats, she executes a small dance step. “That’s what I did in ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ directed by [the late Professor Emerita] Rosemary Nesbitt,” she says with a shy smile. She fingers the curtain, points out rigging she climbed on as a student and reminisces for a moment about playing a role in “The Mikado” the summer after graduation, directed by Professor Emeritus Ron Medici and the late Professor Emeritus Jim Soluri. Professor of Theatre Mark Cole ’73 and Costume Shop Director Kitty Macey stop by for hugs and memories. “These Oswego professors prepared me for the realization of life in the entertainment industry — which can be tough. The things they said and did encouraged me on,” says Shelmidine.
Then the moment is over and it’s down to work for Shelmidine.
1 and 2 doubling Aleksa Palladino in “The Huntress,”3 doubling Ellyse Deanna in a SOBE energy drink commercial, 4 doubling Pamela Adlon in “Wedding Bells,” 5 doubling, Anna Belknap in “Medical Investigations” 6 doubling Annabella Sciorra in “The Sopranos” 7 doubling Reece Thompson in “Rocket Science” and 8 doubling Hillary Duff in “Greta.”
Precision is Key
Even as the photographer readies the lighting and the art director positions props, Shelmidine is talking animatedly about the stunt we will simulate for the photo. “Where do you want me?” She calls out to the photographer. “What do you think of this move?” as she kicks one jeans-clad leg above her head while hanging onto the rigging ropes, a ballerina with biceps.
She’s in her element now. In her world, the director tells the stunt coordinator precisely where the action has to land, to fit into the shot he or she envisions for the movie or TV show under production.
Shelmidine tells of one memorable stunt for the television show, “Mercy.” “There was a fight scene with another woman in a hospital,” she recalls. “They said to break everything in the room. I happened to catch a stuffed frog; it flew over the bed and landed in front of the camera. They asked me if I could do it again. So there I was, smashing a glass picture frame with my head, and I had to scoop up the frog without looking like I was doing it and have it land the same way it did when I did it by accident.”
Shelmidine specializes in fights, fires and falls, as well as driving. Her gear bag also includes a set of tools, a shop rag and some sandpaper. She is so committed to safety and precision, Shelmidine likes to set up her own cars for stunts. She makes sure the brakes are in working order, tests the vehicle to get a feel for how it performs in the maneuvers she will make. The sandpaper? That’s to clean the dust from the brakes so they can lock up when she takes the car into a slide.
A theatre and psychology major at Oswego, she auditioned at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., shortly after graduation. Her first big break came unexpectedly. The theme park needed an actress to fire a gun. “Growing up in Lorraine, N.Y., I knew a lot about shooting. My dad went hunting; I wasn’t afraid of it,” she recalls. “At least I didn’t break a fingernail like the other girl.” She got the job and spent her days working the Dynamitic Nights Lagoon Show, riding around in a boat and shooting the bad guys. “On off days, I’d be the bad guy,” she says with laugh. She hid in a trawler while shots and flames exploded around her. Later they asked if she would leap off the top of the exploding trawler into the lagoon. Of course, she said yes, and the rest is history.
She snagged a gig in Tampa performing a stunt with Burt Reynolds, earned her Screen Actors Guild card and headed for Hollywood.
Making of a Stuntwoman
There she spent time learning the stunt trade from other stunt performers and coordinators, studying martial arts like Hap ki do and Tae kwon do and practicing rock climbing, rappelling, fire stunts and jumping from high fall towers.
One of her biggest loves is cars, and she honed her skills by working at the Rick Seamans Motion Picture Driving Clinic, two seasons on the pit crew at Scott Brothers Racing Team, a season building cars for the TV reality show “Fear Factor” and currently aligns herself with the Drivers East stunt team in New York City. Her motorcycle skills helped her land two national commercials for Suzuki and a doubling gig as America Ferrera in “Ugly Betty.”
She does credit Oswego with some of her driving skills, though. “I had lots of practice driving my Ford LTD on the snow,” she says with a laugh.
Shelmidine explains that fire is a “mind game,” which slows down time for her. “On the outside you are acting like a crazy woman, and inside [you are] Zen with the world,” is how she explains it.
She recalls her favorite class, although she didn’t know at the time it would serve her so well in her career: “Bodily Movement” with Theatre Professor Emeritus Ron Medici. “We memorized movement, and in our last final, I memorized movement around the dance studio,” she says. “If anything, that class is what my career became.
“Now, I look at an actress and right away start imitating her movement, so when I’m in the middle of my stunt my body emulates hers.”
In addition to her mentors in the theatre department, psychology professor Dave Sargent, Shelmidine’s adviser, helped her through trying times and gave her a lot of confidence in her choices.
Another Oswego influence was her work-study job in the Alumni Relations Office. Shelmidine credits the alumni staff for teaching her to be a professional, independent woman, advice that helped her in temp jobs when just starting out and now in organizing her stunt career. She fondly recalls being the Reunion coordinator, appropriately organizing the Road Rally, and helping with alumni programs, which instilled in her the value of giving back. She is looking forward to returning to campus to lecture in classes and workshops for current students.
It’s Shelmidine’s way of repaying Oswego for the start to her career. Looking out from the stage in Waterman Theatre, the no-nonsense, athletic stuntwoman gets a bit of a wistful look in her eye. “I’m just so thrilled to have it come full circle,” she says.
- Michele Reed
Each week, La Rae M. Martin-Coore ’99 is used to getting a few glances when she cruises the grocery aisles with her husband, son and three carts in tow.
They’re shopping for their extended family, the six New York City teens who live with them in Manlius.
The girls are enrolled in the A Better Chance, or ABC, program at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. The nationwide initiative brings bright inner city youth to high-achieving school districts to give them a different perspective while preparing for college and career.
ABC, one of two in the state, has been a part of the community for nearly 40 years. Martin-Coore took over as resident director last fall and made quite a commitment. As part of the position, she and her family moved into the ABC house in Manlius.
“The way a family operates, that’s very much the way we operate,” Martin-Coore said.
She is a mentor, counselor and, in many respects, mother to these teens. On any given night, the house is buzzing with activity — the stairs creak with frequent commuters running up and down, cell phones vibrate with text message alerts and gatherings in the kitchen or at the dinner table fuel constant conversation.
“I have a passion for working with young people, young women in particular,” says Martin-Coore, who also works as the academic coordinator for Le Moyne College’s Higher Education Preparation/Upward Bound Program. As a high schooler at Nottingham in Syracuse, Martin-Coore was herself a participant at Le Moyne before heading to SUNY Morrisville and eventually to Oswego.
“I like to help students achieve with the same opportunities that I have had in my life,” says Martin-Coore, who at Oswego was very active in ALANA and the Black Student Union — the community service projects, in particular.
Helping Students Succeed
Like Upward Bound, ABC focuses on getting talented students ready for college. The teens must meet high academic standards to qualify.
“This is just another experience for the students to have,” Martin-Coore says. “You get to learn about people from all walks of life and get along with all different people.
“That’s the college experience … and colleges recognize that too,” she says. “It sets you apart.”
Even the youngest in the house, freshman Tanaja Stephenson of Brooklyn, has college plans. “I like that I’m being challenged more than I would at home,” she says over a plate of chicken riggies with her housemates.
Many in this group of six, like junior Sara Elzeini of the Bronx, have aspirations to enter the medical field.
“I think it might be hard for some kids to go away to school,” says Elzeini, vice president of her class at Fayetteville-Manlius and a part-time swim instructor at the YMCA. “I feel like it won’t be a shock to me to go to college.”
The teens split up household chores and handle their own, like laundry, says Martin-Coore, who lives in the home with her husband, Zaire M. Coore ’98, and son, Zaire J. Coore.
Students spend all four years of high school at their ABC destination.
“You get to connect with people you would otherwise never have met,” said sophomore Kesi Rivera of Harlem. “This program opens a lot of doors.”
Martin-Coore hopes to one day open her own leadership academy for young women of color.
“I’m showing them who they can possibly become,” she says. “I know when I do that, I’m going to be blessed.
“It’s about being happy.”
There is beauty in their decay.
In rusty brilliance, the remnants remind passersby there was life here. There was commerce, there were castle homes, there was economic might in the Empire State.
Robert Yasinsac ’99 has done his best to capture it before these abandoned buildings disappear.
He concentrates his urban exploration on the Hudson Valley, where factory ruins and grand mansions are left for dead. With his camera, Yasinsac brings history to life.
“There’s a lot of change happening out there right now,” says Yasinsac. Long-neglected riverfronts welcome new development like condominiums. At the same time humble, but historical, structures are swept away.
“I think we’re at a time when these are the last buildings that are still standing,” says Yasinsac, a history and anthropology major who has spent the better part of two decades capturing the ghostly remains of Upstate New York. “I am documenting what is still here. I’ve got all these pictures of places that aren’t around anymore.”
The Tarrytown native cannot restore these brick-and-mortar gems he first discovered on grade-school class walks around his hometown. In attempting to highlight the hidden dignity of faded façades and disintegrating interiors, Yasinsac also hopes to inspire restoration and save them.
A growing number of urban explorers have taken to cities and towns, posting discoveries on the Web as Yasinsac and his partner in photography Tom Rinaldi do at hudsonvalleyruins.org. It’s a promising phenomenon to Yasinsac, who works as historian at the Phillipsburg Manor historic site in Sleepy Hollow.
“Hopefully the more people [who are] involved and have even a casual interest, the more will get saved,” he says.
Photographs by Robert Yasinsac ’99
Words by Shane M. Liebler
Dr. Barbara Palmer Shineman ’65, M ’71, professor emerita of education, sifts through memorabilia of her late husband, Dr. Richard S. Shineman. She finds a card their granddaughter Megan gave Dick for his birthday one year. It reads, “The man who reaches for his star is admired, but the man who helps others reach theirs is loved.”
When your résumé includes experiences like standing atop Piez Hall measuring the wind speed as the Blizzard of ’77 rolls in off Lake Ontario, where else would your career take you but before the cameras of The Weather Channel as the Winter Weather Expert?
In the fall, art department alumni spanning four decades shared their work and their stories in a special exhibit at Tyler Hall.
Bob Moritz ’85, chairman and senior U. S. partner of the Big 4 accounting firm PwC, pulled into Oswego April 16 to pick up the Beta Gamma Sigma business honor society honorary member award on his way back to New York from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions in Cleveland, where he was thrilled to see Green Day honored.