It was one o’clock on a February morning in 2018, and Jean Emery was still up, painstakingly rigging the red sails on twenty-four red and white miniature sailboats for an upcoming alumni event. The Cornell Club of Sarasota-Manatee (CCSM) was hosting President Martha Pollack for the first time since she’d taken the helm of the university and she would be joined by the dean of the Cornell Law School, Eduardo Peñalver ‘94. The little boats were the table centerpieces, just one element of the event’s nautical theme, “Navigating the Future,” which was Jean’s idea.
The next day, the event went on without a hitch, a work of art thoughtfully choreographed. It was a success that would come as no surprise to anyone who has known Jean Emery over any of the sixty-plus years she has lent her time and talents to benefit Cornell University. If she is involved with something, it will be done well.
”Jean Emery is the Cornell Club of Sarasota-Manatee’s tour de force,” reports the club’s president, Beverly Tramontelli ’80. “She makes it her mission to get to know each member of the club in depth, including each local Cornell student, each local Cornell student’s family, and all of our club counterpoints in Ithaca and beyond. I rely on her counsel, her advice, her knowledge and her friendship, as do many other officers and members of the club. Jean is beloved and is, quite simply, a star.”
Jean’s association with Cornell began when she was head resident in Clara Dickson Hall while pursuing her MA, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a classics degree from Elmira College. She was elected to be marshal of the graduate students at her Cornell commencement in 1954. During her time on campus she met her future husband, Howard ’54. In 1957 when the couple moved to Long Island, they began their volunteer work by joining ASSC, now called the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network (CAAAN). It was chaired by the legendary volunteer Hank Greenberg ’22, a great role model to them in the years that followed when they gave so much back to their university. Jean and Howard took over as co-chairs of ASSC from the early 1970’s until 1980, directing and training fifty alumni on their committee who, in turn, contacted more than 400 students each year. The couple also led the Annual Fund phonathons for Long Island and served on the Cornell Club Board of Directors. Jean organized and ran Cornell Day on Long island for 1,000 high school students, parents, and guidance counselors, all while also being involved in other volunteer work—continuing a lifelong habit of public service.
When she was the director of Alumni Affairs and Development for a private school on Long Island, Cornell contacted her. Would she be interested in joining the Metro New York Regional Office as an assistant director for alumni affairs, development, and some admissions? It would be a step down in title and pay and would require a long train commute daily, but she considered the chance to work professionally with her alma mater too good an opportunity to turn down. Her sons, David ’83 and Donald ’87, and husband cheered her on.
For the next twenty-four years, Jean helped build and grow alumni support for and involvement with Cornell through her high standards, creativity, and behind-the scenes leadership. Alumni throughout the world, Cornell’s leadership, staff, and faculty came to know and respect her for her deep alumni knowledge, dependability, brilliant ideas, understanding of human psychology, and personal grace.
Even after retirement, Jean Emery continues to serve Cornell University exceptionally. Among her several roles, in 2006 she joined the Board of Directors for CCSM, where she has worked alongside other alumni leaders to help CCSM be recognized as one of Cornell’s most effective domestic alumni clubs. Most recently, Jean was part of the club’s ten-person web tech project team to develop a new website, which includes a password-protected online directory that serves to deepen Cornellians’ ties to each other. In addition, she is finishing a history of the regional offices for the Cornell University Library Archives.
As she has for more than 60 years, Jean Emery continues to guide and steward Cornell, doing her part to keep a great institution steadily on course.
Written by Emily Hopkins, freelance writer in Ithaca, NY.