SUNY Cortland has received more than $1 million from the estate of a retired public school teacher to create a scholarship fund for ambitious students who might not otherwise be able to afford college.
The gift -- the largest realized bequest in College history and one of the most generous gifts ever received by SUNY Cortland -- was made by the late Esther Hawthorne, whose 37-year career influenced young lives from elementary to high school.
Hawthorne, who spent 25 years of her career teaching in the Syracuse City School District, passed away in May 2013 at the age of 95.
“Education was first and foremost to Aunt Esther,” her niece, Inez Baker, said. “As a teacher, she worked with children who she knew could be successful in college, but came from families who couldn’t afford to send them. She wanted to help make sure that students who are college material have the ability to get to go to college.”
Hawthorne’s bequest will be used to create the Esther K. Hawthorne Scholarship Fund to help SUNY Cortland students who demonstrate financial need. She and her late husband, Leslie, who died in 1992, never had sons or daughters of their own. But Esther Hawthorne considered the generations of students in her classroom to be her children, Inez Baker said.
Having grown up on a farm north of Syracuse during the Great Depression, Hawthorne could relate to students whose families had trouble making ends meet. Her three sisters picked strawberries during the summers to raise money to send Hawthorne to Oswego State Teacher’s College (now SUNY Oswego), and Hawthorne did housework to pay for her room and board. She eventually earned advanced degrees from Syracuse University.
“My aunt knew what it was like to scrimp and watch every penny,” Baker said of her aunt, whose husband had worked on the New York State Barge Canal. “She lived very modestly in the house they bought in 1949, paid cash for anything she needed and paid attention to the interest on the money she saved.”
Hawthorne taught in public schools in Ithaca, Cooperstown, Lyons and North Syracuse before spending the bulk of her career in Syracuse. She taught elementary school, middle school and high school and served in positions ranging from classroom teacher to guidance counselor to building principal, Baker said.
During the 1980s, Hawthorne invested her money in certificates of deposit (CDs), which at the time often paid double-digit interest rates. She moved her money around frequently, shopping around for whatever banks offered the highest return. By the time of her death, those savings had risen to more than $1 million.
Hawthorne was proudly independent. She lived on her own and maintained a garden until months before her death, despite having suffered two broken hips. Her relatives can recall seeing her shoveling snow while using a walker.
Education and hard work are the keys to success, Hawthorne believed. As someone who avoided borrowing to the point where she and her husband purchased their vehicles with cash savings, it bothered her that so many deserving students are forced to take on huge debts to attend college. Hawthorne decided to leave a legacy that would help those students pay for their education.
Many of her students in Syracuse wanted to follow in her footsteps to become teachers. Most of them went on to attend SUNY Cortland, which offers the largest accredited teacher education program in the Northeast and was within an hour’s drive of their homes, Baker said. Because of that, Hawthorne decided to focus her scholarship program in Cortland.
“The College is extremely grateful for this generous gift, and will make sure that Esther’s legacy continues the work she dedicated her life to,” said Kimberly Pietro, SUNY Cortland’s vice president for institutional advancement. “SUNY Cortland prides itself on being an institution of opportunity and access. Many of our students have real financial need and Esther’s generosity will allow them to get the education they deserve.”
|Inez Baker, at left, the executor of Esther Hawthorne's estate, hands a $1 million check to Kimberly Pietro, SUNY Cortland's vice president for Institutional Advancement.|