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Class of 1968 Saint Rose Commencement

Golden Roses are Saint Rose alumni who are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their graduation from the College.

We caught up with a half-dozen Golden Roses just weeks ahead of the events honoring this milestone at HOME.COMING & Family Weekend, October 12 through 14, 2018.

Jo Anne (Drutz) Balzar ‘68
B.A. history and political science
San Antonio, Texas

In 1982, Jo Anne (Drutz) Balzar and husband, William, moved to Laredo, Texas, where his employer, General Motors Corp., had assigned him to set up an auto plant across the border in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The Balzars, whom GM had relocated to Rochester, New York, and Dayton, Ohio, over the previous 12 years, found they loved the community in the Southwestern border town.

Jo-Anne-Balzar-with-spouse-William

“We enjoyed living in Laredo and experiencing the Mexican culture,” says Balzar, adding that the city is 97 percent Hispanic, and she and her husband went to language school to learn Spanish. “We made many friends and became quite active in the community.”

They lived in Laredo for 29 years before retiring to San Antonio, Texas, in 2011.

Although she enjoys the Southwest climate and lack of snow to shovel, Balzar does miss seeing the leaves change color.

“The pace of life is much slower here – people even talk slower – and manners are highly prized,” she says. “You greet people with a kiss on the cheek and always ask how their family is doing before continuing a discussion.”

She taught American history at Laredo Community College, eventually becoming chair of social and behavioral sciences and serving on the faculty senate. “LCC grew from 3,000 students to nearly 9,000 students during my time there,” says Balzar. “I loved my job and was chosen to prepare teachers for the workforce under the Title V program.”

When she began teaching in New York State after graduation, Balzar found that she was one of the few teachers who knew how to develop a lesson plan based on objectives – something she learned at Saint Rose. She found that the approach worked just as well for eighth- and ninth-grade students as for first-year students and sophomores in college.

She also used the approach to teach high school seniors who take history classes for college credit. “The teachers would come with the students, take notes, and often tell me that my objective-oriented style of a teaching was something they wanted to try,” she says. “I even had some department colleagues sit in on classes to observe my methods.”

She learned at Saint Rose to appreciate her students while encouraging them to excel. She also learned to be a good community member.

“We were expected to be involved with our college, church, and community,” says Balzar, adding that she became involved with the Rotary Club in Laredo, and served as president for one year. “We hosted exchange students and Rotarians from different countries,” she says. “We were active in outreach and raising funds for community needs, and serving as Eucharistic ministers and lectors.”

Her favorite Saint Rose memory is of Christmas dinner before leaving for winter break.

“Steak, baked potatoes, a vegetable, and salad, with the pièce de résistance: baked Alaska for dessert,” says Balzar. “I remember going to see the opening of ‘The Sound of Music’ and rushing back to campus, so as to not miss our favorite meal of the year.”

Another fond memory is of the senior class play. Balzar had one line: “Oh, I just can’t wait.” She rehearsed it over and over, enlisting friends to help. “When the time came to say my line, I almost missed my cue and said it so softly that nobody heard it,” she recalls.

The evening wasn’t a total loss, however. “After the play, a group of us went to a local hangout called Papa’s,” she says. “That was where I met the man who later became my husband of 48 years (so far).”

Maureen Conners ’68
B.A. history and political science
San Francisco Bay Area, California

Maureen Conners spent her career guiding and shaping the marketing efforts and strategies of multibillion-dollar, multinational organizations – first as a senior executive, then as a consultant and board director. After graduating from Saint Rose, she started her professional life as a teacher, then decided to study marketing at Wharton.

maureen connersAfter earning her MBA, she advanced in marketing at Gillette (now P&G), Levi’s, and Mattel – where she helped build brands and launched many new products. She subsequently started Conners Consulting, where she helped corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Ralph Lauren, Hewlett-Packard, and Polaroid launch new products and shape corporate strategy.

Conners joined the board of directors of Deckers (makers of Ugg) in 2006, where she stayed until 2014. Today, she consults in the consumer and retail markets, is on the board of directors of Fashion Incubator San Francisco (funded by Macy’s), is an advisor to Plug and Play Tech Accelerator, and serves on the board of Smithsonian Libraries.

Considering the watchful eye she’s kept on trends shaping the consumer-products industry, there’s little wonder that Conners remains an expert on the latest innovations disrupting the landscape. In a recent article for the National Association of Corporate Directors, she exhorted board members and top executives to stay informed and current on technologies – such as artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, voice activation, blockchain, and self-driving vehicles – that are transforming the consumer experience. She has been invited to talk about how organizations can harness the potential of new technologies at such prestigious venues as the Consumer Electronics Show, Deloitte’s Board Director Symposium, and the Wearable Technologies Conference.

Conners can trace back the genesis of her powerful future in leadership to her years as an undergraduate student majoring in history and political science at Saint Rose. “My Saint Rose experience helped me with leadership through student government and getting an orientation of what the big picture and strategic objectives were,” she says. “These were helpful, especially in business, and ultimately in becoming a board director at a public company as well as at nonprofit organizations.”

Conners, who now calls San Francisco home has many fond memories of Saint Rose. “Mostly, I can remember laughing a lot, philosophizing, and sharing hopes, dreams, and disappointments,” says Conners. “I also felt a great sense of connection with the people at Saint Rose.”

On the eve of her Golden Roses reunion, she says she appreciates the lasting values she learned at Saint Rose. “I feel very excited about reconnecting with people who know me, had the same educational background, and experienced life in college at the same time I did,” she adds.

In addition, Conners is curious to find out what her classmates’ new dreams and hopes might be: “I look forward to conversations about the next chapters in our lives.”

Ellen Devlin Cray ’68
B.A. Spanish
York, Pennsylvania

Ellen (Devlin) Cray has enjoyed a long, happy career doing lots of things, including working for social services and managing a business office, for which Saint Rose prepared her professionally and personally. It was also during her time at Saint Rose that she found which profession she did not want to enter.

“My student teaching at the high-school level was an enlightening experience,” says Cray. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was not meant for a career in teaching!”

Ellen Cray with family
After graduating from Saint Rose, she moved to Maryland to be with her future husband, Laurence (Larry), a family friend she had known since childhood.

“His mother and mine were old friends who stayed in touch over the years,” she says. “You could say that Larry and I became an ‘item’ during our college years, but we had been friends long before that!”

She began working for the Department of Social Services in Baltimore, learning her way around the city bus system and the inner-city housing projects. She worked there until 1974, when the couple bought their first house and the first of three children arrived. “Then the critical and challenging job of mothering began,” says Cray.

When the children were old enough, Cray began working part-time with a beer distributor, assisting with payroll and other office tasks. “I was becoming aware of what I was good at, and I liked what I was doing,” she says.

In 1999, Larry took a customs-related job in Kentucky, where the family moved and lived until 2018. Cray took a temporary position (“not full time, but close to it”) in a tent-rental office, taking phone orders and maintaining the office, which she enjoyed until the owner retired and sold the business. “That was when I ‘retired,’ too,” she adds.

Cray and Larry moved to York, Pennsylvania, after Larry’s frightening bout of pneumonia.

“The medics didn’t like his irregular heartbeat and decided to stop his heart and start it again,” she says. Rather than continue to live in their three-story condo, the Crays moved into a one-floor condo in Pennsylvania that their children had scouted for them.

“We are learning our way around the area and meeting our neighbors,” she says. “I love walking the rail trail path close to our home.”

Cray says that Saint Rose is an important part of her life story.

“I enjoy going back and sharing with my classmates, who have immensely different stories to tell: Some always had their sights pointed in a preferred direction, while others of us proceeded on a winding path that proved quite satisfying.”

From her time as an undergraduate student at Saint Rose, one of Cray’s most vivid memories is of the blackout of 1965.

“It was a stark reminder of how much we depend on power, both then and now,” she says. She also recalls how Vatican II was changing the landscape in the 1960s. “We were allowed to be not only in the chapel, but also on the altar with the priest,” says Cray, adding that Mass is still an important part of her life.

For this upcoming reunion, Cray will be traveling with good friend and classmate, Ann O’Connor Kilian ’68.

“I am saddened at the list of so many of our classmates who are no longer with us,” she says. “However, for this big reunion, Ann and I are looking forward to reconnecting with classmates we haven’t seen for a while. We look forward to sharing old memories and making new ones.”

Ellen Keegan ’68, G’72
B.S. elementary education preK-6, English M.S.Ed.
Clifton Park, New York

When she graduated from Saint Rose, Ellen Keegan discovered that her newly earned credential magically opened doors with employers.

“My training as an elementary teacher first secured me a job just from the mere fact that I graduated from Saint Rose,” she says. “No interview necessary – just the diploma.”

Ellen Keegan
Keegan embarked on a decades-long career as an English teacher with the Troy City School District, in Troy, New York, where the strong education foundation she had built at Saint Rose gave her confidence and capabilities that allowed her to develop a highly effective, individual approach. “I became very comfortable creating innovative ways of presenting the material I taught,” she says.

In addition to a love of teaching, as a Saint Rose undergraduate student, Keegan developed a love of literature that she passed along to her students when she became a teacher. Many of them came from disadvantaged backgrounds that afforded them little exposure to books.

“The discussions we had over books we shared opened doors to understanding where students were coming from, their thoughts, fears, and life – so different from my own background,” she says. “The books were the springboard to understanding ourselves and each other on a higher level.”

After she retired in 1999, Keegan found a new way to use the power of literature to help others find a momentary escape from their hostile, dangerous surroundings.

“I started sending books to our deployed troops as a form of gratitude for all their sacrifices,” she says. “My considerable background in books made it easy to send the best we had.”

In each box, she included letters expressing thanks, pride in the recipients’ service, and concern for their wellbeing.

Those first boxes of books turned into a nonprofit, Books for Troops, that floated the tagline “Books, Medicine for the Mind” (an inscription from a library in ancient Thebes).

“I wanted to send hours of escape from the horrors of war and a release from anger, homesickness, fear, boredom, and loneliness,” says Keegan. Eight years, and more than 400,000 books later, Keegan has received hundreds of thank-you emails, letters, and cards from military members deployed overseas and recovering in Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country.

That tireless support of our military men and women also earned her a proclamation for steadfast commitment to the troops from U.S. Congressman Paul Tonko and a certificate for commitment to the troops from New York State Sen. Kathleen Marchione over the years.

Keegan adds that the excellent communication skills she developed at Saint Rose have helped her bring media attention to Books for Troops and keep these very important individuals in the public eye.

Her fondest Saint Rose memory is of going caroling through the Pine Hills neighborhood with her classmates around Christmas.

“I also remember a parade of very gifted teachers who influenced my future, my interests, and my values,” she says.

Keegan has remained in touch with many classmates over the years. “We never run out of things to say,” she says. “We have been there for each other through all the ups and downs of 50 years of living. I look forward to recapturing the memories created 50-plus years ago and enjoying them again.”

Mary Miggans Fitzsimmons ’68, G’81
B.A. physics; M.S.Ed. special education
Loudonville, New York

Mary (Miggans) Fitzsimmons believes she has the distinction of being the only physics major to graduate from her Saint Rose class. She adds that she couldn’t have done it without the support of Sister Elizabeth Catherine McManus ‘32, herself a Saint Rose math major who had developed the physics program.

“I went into the field because of Sister Elizabeth,” says Fitzsimmons.

Mary-Miggans-FitzsimmonsThe few other physics majors in or around her year left school or dropped the major. To ensure that she could finish the degree, Saint Rose contracted with a physics instructor from the University at Albany to teach the final classes she required to finish her senior year.

Being the only woman in such a male-dominated field was bound to result in some good stories. For instance, in her senior year, Fitzsimmons was the only student in a mechanics class taught by a male graduate student, who could teach only in the evenings.

One evening, a Sister who was unaware of the arrangement, found the two young people sequestered on the fourth floor of the science hall. “It was just me and this guy, who was only a couple years older than me,” says Fitzsimmons.

It took some time before the Sister would believe that they had only been discussing Newtonian physics. “She probably checked with Sister Elizabeth, too,” adds Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons doubts she could have earned her physics degree without the help of Sister Elizabeth, an unflagging mentor and longtime family friend, who later attended Fitzsimmons’ wedding.

“My father and Sister Elizabeth became quite friendly over time because I was a day hop, and he would bring me to campus,” she says.

A few months after finishing her undergraduate degree, she married Chuck, who had enlisted in the Navy. The couple traveled with the Navy to California, Texas, and Spain. In the 1970s, they moved back to Albany, New York, where Fitzsimmons taught at various schools before coming back to Saint Rose for her master’s degree.

“I could only afford one course at a time, so it took me five or six years to finish, but the Sisters were wonderful,” says Fitzsimmons. “Sister Lucina Hayes was there all the time. If I decided to take a semester off, she’d be on the phone asking why she hadn’t seen my registration. I remember once telling Sister Lucina I couldn’t come to class because my younger son, who was still an infant, had a cold,” adds Fitzsimmons. “She said, ‘Bring him! I’ll watch him.’ And she did.”

Fitzsimmons is eager to see who attends the 50th reunion, adding that she had a blast at her 45th. “We loved being in the dorms and being able to leave our doors open and run from one room to the next,” she says. “I only regret that Sister Elizabeth and Sister Lucina won’t be there to hear their praises from me.”

Fitzsimmons stays in touch with a few classmates, and says there are a few graduates from her class living in her Loudonville neighborhood. “I bet there are 10 women here that went to Saint Rose from classes earlier or later than mine,” she says. “We could have our own little reunion!”

Helen (Mast) Smith ’68
B.S. mathematics
Maricopa, Arizona

After graduating from The College of Saint Rose, Helen (Mast) Smith taught seventh-grade math in the Averill Park Central School District, then moved to Maryland in 1976, when her husband, Ron, accepted a job as a computer consultant to Georgetown University.

Over the years, she taught at a Catholic high school in Washington, D.C., and at rural and suburban schools in Webster, New York, when the couple moved there in the 1980s. In 1986, Ron accepted a job in Phoenix, Arizona.

Helen-Mast-Smith-and-Ron“Because of heavy winter weather that year, I worked until June 28, packed up our two boys and the German shepherd, left the snow blower behind, and arrived in Arizona on July 1, one of the hottest days of the decade,” she says.

There, Smith taught at South Mountain Community College (SMCC) and Arizona State University.

“I taught re-entry women and football players desperate to find a major that didn’t require math,” she says.

She moved up to SMCC’s Honors program, becoming affiliated with the National Collegiate Honors Council and Phi Theta Kappa, and becoming the regional PTK coordinator for 27 chapters.

She went on to become chair of mathematics, science, and engineering, then interim vice president of academic affairs for three years. She returned to the faculty for two years before retiring.

At Saint Rose, Smith had followed her father’s advice to major in math and take education classes – “just in case I decided teaching wasn’t for me,” she says. “I spent 40-plus years in schools, the last 28 at the collegiate level, so clearly academia was an enjoyable experience.”

Although capable and confident, Smith met social challenges as a STEM major in the 1960s. Her Siena boyfriend, an English major who didn’t want his friends to know she was majoring in math, decided to give Smith up for Lent.

“I started dating a Union College student, who became my husband of soon-to-be 50 years,” she says.

Other challenges included a male English teacher who expressed his unhappiness at having any math majors in his class, and a male math teacher who commented that women didn’t deserve A’s in his class. Elsewhere, she received strong support. For example, a female math teacher, noticing that Smith was making a consistent mistake on a test, allowed her to take the test over.

“When the department received a National Science Foundation grant, I participated in summer independent study in graph theory with the department chair and three classmates,” she says. “These challenges prepared me for employment, particularly at the college level.”

Times have changed since Smith was at Saint Rose: “Skirts and dresses were the norm. I remember sewing some of my clothes and learning to knit by sitting on the floor and watching a left-handed classmate,” she adds.

Other memories: sandwiches at Joe’s, shells and meat sauce at Washington Tavern, walking everywhere, the East Coast blackout of 1965, and wearing her first pair of pantyhose. “I was glad to lose the garter belt,” she says.

Graduation at the theater downtown also was memorable. “I remember going in with the marquee reflecting The College of Saint Rose Commencement and leaving to ‘Planet of the Apes!’”

Smith looks forward to reconnecting with old classmates at HOME.COMING & Family Weekend, adding that she will miss those who are unable to attend or are no longer with us. She also hopes that this will reunion will spark subsequent get-togethers, and she welcomes any classmates traveling west of the Mississippi.

– By Irene Kim