The success of SUNY Cortland’s Champions Challenge will depend on a collective effort, so it’s fitting that a major “challenge” gift comes from a pair of generous alumni: Gerald “Jerry” Theisen ’53, M.S.Ed. ’58 and Monica Bedford Voldstad ’72, M.S.Ed. ’77.
Both are champions themselves when it comes to believing in accessible, high-quality education.
Together, they will give a collective $11,000 to SUNY Cortland students for scholarships, research opportunities and other campus priorities if at least 273 people offer a gift of their own — for any amount — on Thursday, Nov. 12.
“There was a lot of excitement the last time we did this, both on campus and among alumni living across the world,” said Jennifer Janes, director of The Cortland Fund. “This year, we’ve upped our initial goal and changed the date to build on the excitement of Cortaca.
“But the parameters remain the same: any gift of any amount from any supporter moves us one step closer to our goal of 273, which was chosen to represent the 73,000 alumni that SUNY Cortland is proud to claim as its own.”
Two of them are Theisen, a retired high school science teacher who has created three scholarships at the College, and Volstad, a member of the Cortland College Foundation Board of Directors and a tireless volunteer for many important causes.
Here’s a little more background on each of them.
Theisen and his wife Ethel Mahan Theisen ’55 spent a combined 60 years in the classroom, dedicating their careers to the countless students who they taught.
“We were teachers all of our working lives,” said Jerry, a physical education major who spent the majority of his career as a science teacher at Ossining High School in Westchester County. “Then we shared 22 wonderful years together before Ethel died, and I thank God for that.”
They met when he was a senior and she was a sophomore at the College.
“We shared a lot of memories together because of Cortland,” said Jerry, who today resides is Gilbertsville, Penn., with his long-haired dachshund, Muffin. “Every time we went back, we’d relive those memories. You remember the places where you first kissed, where you first said ‘I love you’ … those are the places that matter, and that’s Cortland for us.”
In 2007, they created a first scholarship together in both of their names. After Ethel passed away is 2008, Jerry established a second award in Ethel’s name for a childhood education major because his wife spent her entire career teaching elementary school-aged children. Most recently, Jerry funded a third scholarship for undergraduates studying to be science teachers and following his career path.
Theisen, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from SUNY Cortland, previously sat on the Cortland College Foundation Board from 2009 to 2013. He has an adult son and now volunteers regularly at St. Columbkill Parish, a Catholic church near his home.
“We didn’t make a million,” Jerry said. “But we lived comfortably, and we were grateful for that.”
The former childhood education major stays busy through her philanthropic work and service on several boards that support access to higher education, global health concerns and the arts. She reconnected with the College in 2009 when her Alpha Sigma sorority sisters came together to support the Lynne Parks ’68 SUNY Cortland Alumni House.
“I thought it was time to do something for Cortland,” said Voldstad, who resides in New York City.
In 2013, she pledged $100,000 to support an endowed scholarship in her name and other important initiatives of The Cortland Fund. When she meets current students with dreams of working or performing in the city, Voldstad often tries to introduce them to friends in her hometown. She finds joy in connecting people, especially SUNY Cortland students, she said.
Voldstad boasts a unique worldview and an appreciation for international education, having lived for 14 years in London while also spending time with her family in Switzerland and Spain. She taught in Central New York after graduating, then moved to New York City where she worked as a graphic designer, teacher and hospital administrator. During her time in London, she took on many volunteer roles, many of them rooted in the arts, such as ballet, opera and theatre.
Voldstad, who has two adult sons, returned to the U.S. in 1997 and has taken on leadership roles at places in addition to SUNY Cortland, including the Morristown-Beard School, the Pingry School and the University of Hartford.
“My friends keep me interested (in SUNY Cortland), and so does the overall progress of the College,” Voldstad said. “You can’t beat an affordable education that offers a wide variety of majors … majors that can take students on to do some amazing things.”