Cocktail Parties and Capital: Cambridge Calls On Rochester

The Harvard Club of Rochester, N.Y., is feuding with the Harvard Club of Syracuse N.Y.

As Christopher D. Rider '57, president of the Rochester club, explains it, the two clubs collaborated two years ago to rent a tent for the Cornell game in Ithaca, N.Y. It poured the day of the game, and many expected guests failed to show--including the members of the Syracuse club. "They seem to be a very nebulous club; we couldn't find their core," Rider says, and the Rochester contingent was left with the rain, the tent, and, it seems, the tab.

Typically, however, instead of feuding, members of the Harvard Club of Rochester and similar clubs socialize, raise money for Harvard, and aid the College's admissions office.

In a metropolis like New York or Boston, where thousands of students apply for admission and thousands of alumni are concentrated in a small area, a network of committees constantly in contact with Harvard performs the University's local work. In rural areas, high school students apply on their own initiative and the quiet alumnus can remain happily off the fundraisers annual rounds if he wants to.

Smaller cities, like Rochester (population 300,000 or so), fall uncomfortably between--they have too many high school students and alumni to ignore, but often too few to warrant extensive ministrations from Cambridge. "It's unclear whether we're considered part of the big Northeast area or the boondocks--I guess we're the middling boonies," says Harry P. Trueheart III '66, chairman of the schools and scholarships committee of the Rochester Harvard Club.

That club, with a mailing list of about 1300 alumni and 250 dues-paying members, is Harvard's most visible intrusion on life in Rochester. The club holds parties for alumni and students, supports a $5000 scholarship for one home-town student, and acts as the admissions office's eyes and ears in the area.

"We see admissions and school work as our main reason to be," Rider says. The committee Trueheart heads interviews applicants and meets with interested students to answer questions about Harvard. "It's not exactly recruiting--if you recruited 50 applicants and only five were accepted, that wouldn't spread much goodwill," he says. The admissions office has no quotas for regions or cities, but Trueheart says there are general "traditions" that usually govern the number of applicants accepted from a city--recently it's been about seven a year from Rochester.

The admissions and scholarship work is serious business, but for most people, Harvard Clubs primarily mean cocktail parties. Rochester has no separate building for its Harvard Club like the New York City club's luxurious midtown quarters, so its alumni use prestigious local clubs like the Genesee Valley Club for their functions. The Harvard Club sponsors a getaway picnic," a freshman upperclassmen party, a Christmas luncheon, and a winter outing each year.

"We get 30 or 40 people at each of our functions, but they're usually a different 30 or 40," Trueheart says. "The club reflects Harvard--it's very plural. There are a lot of different, individual people, with very distinct interests."

The composition of the club hasn't changed much over the past couple of decades--it remains mostly lawyers, doctors and businessmen. The reasons one alumnus joins the club and another stays away are varied, but alumni in the area agree there is no tight-knit Harvard community. "Just because you're a Harvard alumnus doesn't mean you're any more likely to get to know, or to want to know, other Harvard alumni than you wanted to know the guy across the hall in Winthrop House," Trueheart says.

He adds that graduates of the College tend to be more active and interested in Harvard's local affairs than graduate school alumni.

Each local Harvard club has a character determined by the people most active in it. William D. Rice '56, a Rochester businessman, tells of his visit to the Harvard Club of Buffalo, N.Y. "Buffalo is supposed to be friendly, and Rochester, people say, is stuffy," he says, but when he walked into a Buffalo party no one spoke to him for 45 minutes. Finally he approached the one friendly-looking face in the crowd, but it turned out to belong to a visiting Princeton alumnus.

"I walked in here in Rochester expecting the same thing, but Russ Sibley [an active alumnus] was standing outside--he put a drink in my hand, got me talking to four other people, and was back outside again before I knew it," Rice says.

If alumni keep in only sporadic contact with each other, their contacts with the Cambridge campus are even more intermittent. Most receive all their Harvard news from Harvard Magazine; the officers of the club also receive the Gazette, and Rider travels to Harvard each October for alumni gatherings.

"Most of what I hear just confirms my suspicions that little has changed in the 15 or 20 years since I left," Rice says.

The College occasionally sends emissaries out Rochester's way--usually professors who speak on their specialties, to show alumni that alma mater is putting their contributions to good use. "We get big names sometimes, like Reischauer and Fairbank, but who the big names are changes from year to year and each year every community wants those people," Trueheart says.

In the fall of 1981 Rochester may be in for some big-name visitors indeed, names like Bok and Rosovsky. Peter F. Clifton '49, executive director of the Harvard College Fund, says Harvard's $250 million, five-year capital campaign is tentatively scheduled to "kick off" in Rochester then, with a big dinner for local alumni and top brass from the University.

Fund-raising is the flip-side of alumni social activities, and officials in Cambridge are well aware that active local alumni groups are a valuable way for them to stay in touch with potential contributors. Harvard clubs like Rochester's usually don't participate directly in fund-raising--that's left to local class agents of the Harvard College Fund. But more often than not, an alumnus who wants to stay in touch with his classmates also feels close enough to the College to want to support it financially.

In Rochester, Russell A. Sibley '44, whose family founded the city's main department store, has been the College Fund representative and an active fundraiser for many years--he managed the local effort of the Campaign for Harvard College in the 1950s, Harvard's last major capital drive, and last year ran his class's 35th reunion as well. Rider says the Harvard Club has left most of the fund-raising work to him. "You need to have one enthusiastic guy like Russ Sibley to keep things going and to keep other people interested," he says.

The new capital campaign hasn't shaken Rochester up yet. At a luncheon meeting last January about 20 local alumni gathered to evaluate the prospect for donations, but no one has given the Campaign much thought since. And the Harvard Club doesn't expect it to cause a major upheaval, either. "The only way it might really affect us is by making it harder for us to get people to pay dues, with the competition from the fund drive," Rider says.

The drive hasn't geared up in the Rochester area, Clifton says, and local reports bear him out. Sibley says, "I have not heard of any activity in this area affecting the fund drive, period." Development officials have earmarked the first year-and-a-half of the Campaign for gifts of more than $25,000, and Sibley says that rules out practically every potential contributor in the area.

Sibley has asked not to manage the Campaign in the Rochester area since he just finished work on his 35th reunion, Clifton says. Sibley says he thinks the two local alumni who had organized the January luncheon may have taken charge of the local campaign.

But Hollister Spencer '38, one of the two, says, "I've done nothing since I chaired the luncheon," adding that his co-chairman, Hulbert W. Tripp '29, might know more.

Tripp, however, says, "All I did was host a group of people last year. At that time I made it clear I could not be in charge. The best fellow to talk to would be Russ Sibley."

Still, though confusion seems to prevail among local fund-raisers, development officials have plenty of time to iron out problems before the drive officially begins in the Rochester area. Those officials are confident about both the Campaign's overall chances for success--despite gloomy economic forecasts--and its potential to attract contributions from alumni in every area of the country.

One fund-raising expert in Rochester, who prefers to remain unidentified, says the Campaign's overall prospects are good, but doubts its chances in Rochester and the surrounding counties. "I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for gifts to come in from here," he says. "I just don't think the money is there."

"I've used up my credibility. Our pitch out here in the '50s was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime hard bite. We twisted some arms then. We'd say to a student who had had a scholarship, 'Look, Harvard helped you out, now you help Harvard out,'" he says.

He cautions that one or two unexpected big local contributions could belie his prediction. "There may be three guys out here with a big interest in the preservation of Memorial Church, for all I know," he says. "The Preservation of Memorial Church" is one of the smaller items on the list of needs the Development Office has distributed to potential contributors--a list that also includes the larger goals of endowing faculty seats and student financial aid, renovating buildings, and funding educational programs like the Core Curriculum.

University officials normally raise large amounts towards a campaign's goal before its formal announcement--as of last spring the figure for this drive already exceeded $25 million. Officials use this advance figure as some indication of the drive's chances, and so far they have been encouraged.

"Your easy money, your big money, your loyal money is up front," the Rochester fundraiser says. "It's when you get into the trenches--in places like Detroit, and Dallas, and Rochester--that you find out where you really are." Alumni fundraisers and development officials will climb into those trenches for five years starting this fall, and whether local areas like Rochester prove generous or not, it's bound to be a long battle.

"It's unclear whether we're considered part of the big Northeast area or the boondocks-I guess we're in the middling boonies." --Harry P. Trueheart III