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Philanthropy at Work: Mary Connelly

Mary ConnellyMary Connelly’s parents never went to college, and they didn’t make much money as part of the working class in her small New Jersey town 10 miles west of Manhattan. Yet after she graduated with her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, her father sent $20 every year to Connelly’s alma mater.

I have to give back because they made it possible for you, she recalls him saying, because she got a nearly full-ride scholarship to college.

Her father, a service technician for 45 years with the National Cash Register Company fixing banking machines, struggled with writing, grammar and spelling (in the days before dyslexia was a common diagnosis). But he was an intelligent man who loved to read and to learn, said Connelly, an associate professor and head of painting/drawing and illustration in the visual arts department at the College of Arts & Media.

Like her father, Connelly gives back not only to her alma mater, but to CU as well, so college is possible for students in financial need. Through the monthly payroll deduction, she supports the CAM scholarship fund.

“I just feel the weight on the shoulders today of students and the debt they face,” she said. “Sometimes you would hesitate to write a check for $100. But I felt like for $10 a month, $120 a year, I hardly notice it’s coming out of my paycheck. In this case, it’s convenient.”

Connelly likes that she is supporting a public university that serves a broad population of students in the heart of downtown Denver.

“CAM has a dynamic relationship with Denver and its cultural institutions,” she said. “When you’re teaching in the arts, you really get connected to Denver’s museums and art galleries. It’s interwoven in how you teach and the visiting artists you bring into the classroom. CU students leave with an education, and a large part is seeing this dynamic relationship.”

It harkens back to Connelly’s childhood, where she could see the former World Trade Center towers from her street corner. She and her three siblings were trusted by her parents to take the subway and the trains into New York City to explore the museums and art galleries. She knew from an early age she wanted to study art, but in her last semester of graduate school, her parents died within 90 days of each other. They did not see Connelly become a tenured professor.

Giving financially to CU, she says, “is like giving tribute to my father because he was a working-class man who had little education,” she said. “For him, the value of education trumped everything. He was proud of his children because all of us became first-generation college students. I know I worked hard because my parents worked hard. In some ways, you don’t realize you have this drive wrapped up in making your parents proud of you. I think that fueled my giving back, in a sense. I hope my parents can see me and that means something to me.”