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‘Presidential Whisperer’ to Receive Bell Ringer Award


Television commercials for the brokerage firm E.F. Hutton were memorable. Cameras captured famous and not-so-famous people discussing investment strategies when one person remarked, “Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F. Hutton says ….” At that moment, all went quiet, people leaned in, and anticipation filled the screen. “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen,” declared the narrator.

Elizabeth McCormack, a trustee on College Hill for 45 years, was Kirkland and Hamilton’s E.F. Hutton. She died on Dec. 4, 2020, one month after learning she would receive the Bell Ringer Award, the Alumni Association’s highest honor.

“There are legions of stories about what trustees once called their first E.F. Hutton moment with Elizabeth,” said Gene Tobin, Hamilton’s 18th president and a senior program officer at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation until his retirement in 2019. “These were literally head-turning occasions when the sound of her unmistakable soft, reedy voice politely but decisively redirected the entire mood and tone of the board room, frequently ending debate with knowing sighs of relief and, if one was honest, envy.

“I suspect that almost every Hamilton trustee held Elizabeth in a combination of awe, reverence, and just a touch of (unwarranted) fear,” Tobin added. “These are qualities worthy of someone whose unmatched life experiences at the highest levels of higher education and philanthropy imbued her with a powerful authenticity long before the word was in vogue.”

“Elizabeth was wise, forthright, and unfailingly supportive,” said Joan Hinde Stewart, Hamilton’s 19th president and the 2016 recipient of the Bell Ringer Award. “She seemed to understand everything, whether it was philanthropy or philosophy, higher education or human nature. I don’t think I ever faced a challenge without thinking of how Elizabeth would — or did — handle it. Her advice on matters such as student scholarships, trustee roles, capital campaigns, and life balance, along with over 40 years of intellectual, moral, and material generosity, were a vital force on this campus.”

McCormack’s influence at Hamilton was immediately apparent to President David Wippman when he came to the College as president in 2016.

“Few people in American higher education have had as much an impact on a college or university as did Elizabeth McCormack, first for Kirkland College, and then for Hamilton,” he said. “Universally respected and widely admired, she was wise, unassuming, generous, and committed to Hamilton. She was, as I said when announcing her passing in December, a role model for many of us in higher education. It was always a special moment to be in Elizabeth’s presence and to hear her perspective on the topics at hand.”

McCormack was a trustee on College Hill for nearly half of her life, beginning in 1975 when she served on the board for Kirkland College, and then for Hamilton when the two colleges merged in 1978. At the time of her death, three months shy of her 99th birthday, she was a life trustee.

“As beloved as Elizabeth was by her fellow trustees,” Tobin said, “she was a presidential whisperer of legendary generosity to generations of Hamilton presidents and their families. A wry smile, raised eyebrow, or pregnant pause usually elicited the inner honesty that many leaders prefer to avoid and are better for confronting. Elizabeth’s consistent advice to her presidential progeny still stands the test of time: always act in Hamilton’s best interests; remember that you are the College’s steward for a limited period; and that no one is infallible. We listened and believed because we knew she had our backs.”

A 1944 graduate of Manhattanville College, McCormack received a master’s degree from Providence College, and was awarded a Ph.D. from Fordham University in 1966. She joined the Society of the Sacred Heart after leaving Manhattanville and returned to her alma mater to serve as assistant to the president in 1958, academic dean in 1962, and then president from 1966 to 1974, during which time she led the transformation of the traditional Catholic women’s college to a nonsectarian coeducational institution.

In addition to Kirkland and Hamilton, McCormack was a trustee for Spelman, Swarthmore, Marlboro, and Manhattanville colleges, and was associated with numerous other educational, cultural, philanthropic, and humanitarian organizations. As head of the Rockefeller Family Philanthropic Office, she advised the Rockefellers on their charitable responsibilities.

The Bell Ringer Award recognizes exceptional service to Hamilton, its alumni, and the community over the course of the recipient’s lifetime. It is scheduled to be awarded posthumously during Reunions in June.

McCormack joins Bob Simon (2018), Joan Hinde Stewart (2016), Nancy Seeley (2012), Trix Smalley (2012), Patsy Couper (2007), Frank Lorenz (2003), and Ellie Wertimer (2001) as non-Hamilton alumni to receive the award since 2000.

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