a portrait of Kraig Kayser

Meet the New Chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees

Our conversation with Kraig Kayser, MBA ’84, ranges from the serious (pride in Cornell’s pandemic leadership) to the lighthearted (ice cream sacrilege)

By Beth Saulnier

On July 1, the Board of Trustees gained a new chairman: Kraig Kayser, MBA ’84. A member of the board since 2013, Kayser is a veteran executive who spent 27 years as CEO of Seneca Foods—one of the largest producers of processed fruits and vegetables in North America—before retiring in 2020.

(The company, which is based in Upstate New York, has Cornellian roots: it was founded by Arthur Wolcott ’49.)

Kayser is not only a native Upstater but a second-generation Cornellian, with three Hotelies in his immediate family: father Julius Kayser ’47 and older brothers Karl Kayser ’72, BS ’73, and Kurt Kayser ’74.

In a Zoom interview aimed at introducing Kayser to his fellow alumni, Cornellians chatted with him about his passions, his lifelong memories of the Hill, and much more.

You come from a Cornellian family; do you have childhood memories of campus?

For sure. Many a Saturday afternoon in the fall was spent up on Kite Hill; I have vivid memories of my father and his friends—like Dick Brown ’49, Don Berens ’47, and Art Wolcott ’49, to name a few—decked out in their sports jackets and trench coats, huddling around the grill tailgating before heading into Schoellkopf. And every year, Hotel Ezra Cornell weekend was a really big deal in our household.

Many a Saturday afternoon in the fall was spent up on Kite Hill.

What’s your strongest memory of your time as an MBA student?

The countless hours spent in the bottom-floor study rooms of Malott Hall, working on projects with classmates, including one who is among my closest friends to this day.

What’s the most important thing you took away from your Cornell education?

It was my first exposure to accounting. I had a terrific professor—John Elliott, PhD ’82—who taught me how to read a general ledger and dissect financial statements. It was foundational for my career in business.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus?

After all those hours working on projects, we’d go to the Big Red Barn to socialize with the entire class. It was a favorite place of mine, and still is; I stopped by when I was on campus for the last trustee meeting.

Kraig Kayser and friends and their 10th MBA reunion
Kayser (center) and friends at the 10th Reunion of their MBA class. (Photo provided)

What was your preferred Collegetown restaurant or watering hole?

I had plenty. I went to Rulloff’s and Johnny’s—and Plum’s downtown, and Glenwood Pines on the lake. I lived at the bottom of the Hill, so I went to the Fall Creek House quite a bit. I’m not picking one; I liked them all.

What Chimes song do you most love hearing when you’re back on campus?

“Give My Regards to Davy”—the Big Red fight song. Can’t get enough of it.

What do you think is special about Cornell as an institution?

When Kathryn Boor ’80 was dean of CALS, she used to describe the college’s mission as “delivering knowledge with a public purpose.” As a trustee, I’ve seen that spirit of public purpose across the University and among its alumni. This has been highlighted during the pandemic, through the heroic leadership shown by so many at Weill Cornell Medicine and the Ithaca campus.

We’d go to the Big Red Barn to socialize with the entire class. It was a favorite place of mine, and still is.

How do you envision your role as chairman?

As a facilitator, organizer, and communicator on behalf of the full board. Our board is one of the largest among universities—we have 64 voting trustees—and the size in some ways is an advantage, because Cornell is so large and complex. Our board is able to have many voices from all across the University.

Time for a tough question: what’s your favorite ice cream flavor at the Dairy Bar?

It may be considered sacrilege, but since I lived downtown, I went to Purity. My favorite was, and still is, peppermint stick.

What are your main hobbies?

Besides following Big Red sports, I read a lot of history books, travel, and play the occasional round of golf. I often put golf and travel together.

Do you have a hidden talent?

Back in the day, I used to make a pretty mean batch of buffalo-style chicken wings.

Kraig Kayser, Karen Zimmer, and Bob Harrison in academic regalia
In Commencement regalia (from left): Kayser, trustee emerita Karen Paul Zimmer ’91, MD ’98, and Robert Harrison ’76, Kayser’s predecessor as chairman. (Photo provided)

What book are you reading now?

We Showed Baltimore, about Coach Richie Moran and the Big Red lacrosse team in the ’70s. I’m absolutely loving it, especially on the heels of this year’s trip to the NCAA finals in Hartford.

What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been?

Does Ithaca count?

Of course! OK, what’s a place you’ve never been, but would love to visit?

This summer, I’m going with my family on a photo safari to Tanzania, and I’m really looking forward to it.

What’s your top sports team, band, and TV show?

Besides the Big Red, my favorite team is the Buffalo Bills. My favorite band is the only real marching band in the Ivy League: the Big Red Marching Band. On TV, I’d have to say any episode of “The Office” where Andy Bernard is over the top about Cornell.

My favorite band is the only real marching band in the Ivy League.

What’s your most treasured possession?

My grandfather was an apple farmer east of Rochester, and I have a painting of his big gray barn that was done by my aunt when she was 18. I have that hanging in my office, and it conjures up many fond childhood memories of my time on the farm.

Is there a lesson from your youth that still serves you today?

My father had several setbacks in his life, and Cornellians were there to help him get back on his feet. That’s something I learned at a young age: Cornell is a pretty special place, and Cornellians share a special bond.

And lastly: if you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?

Being from Upstate New York, I can imagine myself dining with a small group of distinguished Upstate New Yorkers from the mid-1860s: Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, A.D. White, and Ezra Cornell. We’d discuss the formation of a new university—one that’s coeducational, nonsectarian, and open to all.

Top image: Photo by Lindsay France / Cornell University

Published July 5, 2022


Comments

  1. Jason R Gettinger, Class of 1964

    I cannot believe how superficial this is.

    • George+Weiner, Class of 1964

      Agreed, but I assume a more substantive interview will follow shortly.

  2. Nick, Class of 2021

    The guy couldn’t give one real answer? What a waste of time

  3. Gerald Rehkugler, Class of 1957

    Congratulations. I really appreciate your roots with your grandfather. I grew up on a fruit farm in Wayne County. I believe we likely sent some of our products to Seneca Foods. Best wishes for a great tenure as Chair of the Board of Trustees!

  4. Tim Guba

    I respect he supports Big Red Athletics. The administration doesn’t respect or support the importance great teams have on a campus

  5. Larry

    I appreciate our new Chairman’s love for Big Red sports. Many of us share his passion for the Red. I hope he (& the rest
    of the Board) are willing to do what’s necessary to enable our teams to compete successfully, including our long-suffering football program.

    • Larry

      I believe Cornell undervalues & underfunds its athletic program. Winning teams generate school spirit, alumni interest, financial support, & sometimes national attention. It has a high ROI. As Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote
      Since it cost a lot to win
      And even more to lose…

  6. Andrew, Class of 1992

    Why all the references to “Upstate New York” from both the editor of this piece, as well as from Mr. Kayser? Cornell is not located in “Upstate New York,” it is located in Central New York. Kayser is from Rochester, so the specific reference to him being “from Upstate New York” at least makes sense. But the other references are weird and suggest that both the Cornellians online magazine and Cornell’s new board chair don’t know how to describe where Cornell is located.

    • Matheus, Class of 2019

      Sorry, but Cornell is indeed located in ‘Upstate NY’. First, there is no clear official boundary between Upstate New York and Downstate New York. The most expansive definition of the term “Upstate New York” excludes only New York City and Long Island. Also, even in a more conservative classification (and in NY State law), the Finger Lakes region is always considered ‘Upstate New York’.
      Please refer to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upstate_New_York and the references there in case you want to read more about it.

  7. Thomas F. Nytch, Class of 1958

    For those commenting on the “superficiality” of the Kayser interview, they miss the point. This interview introduces us to the man, not his supposed ideology, or “Humma-humma” as we said in the Army: of which there is too much of these days, in my opinion. He sounds like my kind of guy, whom I feel comfortable with as Trustee at my beloved University, which formed my life from the day I entered to this very day.

  8. Randy

    I would like very much to be at that dinner too–perhaps eating buffalo wings.I would be curious to know how Kraig Kayser, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, A.D. White, and Ezra Cornell would feel about equity of outcome as opposed to equality of opportunity at the new university.

  9. anne moffat, Class of 1969

    Interview is ´journalism light’, an embarrassment to the discipline and to Cornell. This new Cornell Alumni publication must do better or it will soon be discredited.

  10. Pam Marrone, Class of 1978

    This is a wonderful interview. The point is to understand the person not his CV. Thank you for this.

  11. Sanjit Mohapatra

    Our new chairman is reading “We Showed Baltimore”? Awesome. We probably passed each other on the way to our seats in Hartford. Let’s Go Red!

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