By Brian Bennett
Through his own variety of experiences—as an athlete, coach and administrator—Geneseo alumnus Jim Leary ’75 is convinced of the values learned and attained through being a participant in athletics. He believes leadership to be one of the prime attributes that can be developed and in 2008 he established the James N. Leary Endowed Fund for Leadership in Athletics at his alma mater.
The program has evolved over the past eight years into an annual dinner for junior student-athletes. Alumni from a variety of sports, academic majors and occupations are invited back to network with the students and share their own advice and life lessons. Of particular focus is to help current student-athletes understand how the experience of participating in intercollegiate athletics gives them valuable and tangible skills.
A keynote speaker helps to establish a theme for the program and this year’s choice, Betsy Balling ’95, titled her talk, “All I Really Needed to Know About Life I Learned at Geneseo.” One of the subjects she discussed was the concept of taking calculated risks, a secondary topic for the evening.
Leary (click here for his biography) is a frequent participant at the dinner, but this year professional obligations prevented his attendance. He took time, however, to share some thoughts on risk, which were included in the dinner program, and also asked college roommate and fraternity brother Gary Witter ’75 to represent him at the event.
“Every decision you make is going to be a good one, or maybe not so good,” related Leary. “It is how you react to your bad decisions and admit where your analysis was wrong. Most importantly, you learn more from your failed moves than your successes.”
Witter, who played basketball with Leary at Geneseo and also participated in lacrosse, welcomed the student-athletes and told them what they could take from the career of his life-long friend.
“His success isn’t what makes Jim special,” said Witter. “It’s his core values, it’s his character and it’s the life choices he continues to make.”
Witter delivered a short “pep talk” per Leary’s wishes, about life skills learned by playing sports.
“Team structure is found in most professionals and your ability to work well with others and superiors is essential,” said Witter. “You’ll have to deal with setbacks, and what shows good character is how one chooses to bounce back. Your strong will and perseverance will serve you well.”
Geneseo President Denise Battles was attending her first Leary Dinner and also welcomed the students.
“I have seen time and again how Geneseo athletics helps foster leadership, sportspersonship, and sound decision-making in our student-athletes,” said Battles. “So to reference the age-old question, ‘Are leaders born or made?’ I think the case can be made that it’s a little of both. And that’s why events like the Leary Leadership Dinner are so important.”
Students were given the opportunity to network with the alumni participants during an opening meet-and-greet period, as well as during the dinner, as alumni were placed with students at each table. After dinner came the keynote presentation by Balling, who played soccer at Geneseo, majored in elementary education and is currently as assistant principal at a suburban-Rochester middle school.
“In my mind, every single situation you could EVER encounter is related to athletes,” Balling told her audience. “Just ask the students I work with or my colleagues. I have a sports analogy for every situation.”
Balling focused on four areas about what “really mattered” about going out into the real world: leadership, surrounding yourself with a great support network, taking risks, and being nice.
“Leadership is part of what makes you great and it is a skill set that you can use for either good or evil—kind of like a super hero,” said Balling. “I learned that being a leader is not about being popular. It is about being respectful, making hard decisions, being loyal, and putting the needs of others before the needs of one’s self.”
Balling’s second point stressed the need to have a network of people that could be counted on. She recalled that her support system not included her teammates at Geneseo, but also professors, administrators and coaches and all helped foster her development not only as a player, but as a young adult and as a leader.
“Employers, last least the ones I have worked for, seek what an athlete brings to the table: confidence, work ethic, grit and leadership,” stated Balling. “Your support network, if it truly is a support network, will never let you down. Remember, it is all about quality, not quantity.”
Subject area three was the night’s sub-theme: taking calculated risks. Athletes and competitors, believes Balling, are consistently faced with taking chances in game situations and those decision-making qualities can be translated to the real world.
“The working world can be unforgiving. There will be hundreds of people vying for the positions that you want and you need to have something that will set you apart,” said Balling. “What I can tell you though, is that you already have a leg up on your competition because you were born to compete.”
Balling related her own experiences in professional risk-taking, which led to her current position.
“The point of my story is to tell you that if you don’t try, if you are not afraid to throw your hat into the ring and take a chance, then you are never going to know what you are truly capable of. As my former superintendent said to me, ‘You can’t slide into third if you never leave second.’”
Her closing thoughts focused on the simple and basic idea of being nice.
“I challenge you to go forward in a world that can be cruel to be the bright spot in someone’s day, every day. It will not only make a different in how you feel about yourself; it will also help you in every facet of your life and from my experience, random acts of kindness have a funny way of coming back around.”
Dan Moore ’06, head coach of the Knights’ men’s and women’s cross country teams, delivered some closing comments. He offered insights from his own journey about how the risks he took were driven by an evolution of his own goals. After attaining his master’s degree, he started his career as a school psychologist, as well as cross country/track and field coach.
“I always knew my identity was to help others, which is why I wanted to be a high school psychologist. My identity changed as my love for coaching grew greater and greater. It grew so great that I wanted to do and help others in the world of sport so much that was faced with many difficult decisions” related Moore. “Decisions to stay in the comfort of a school district with a secure paying job with health and retirement benefits, or forfeit all of this and chase my dreams, dreams of coaching collegiately.”
The student-athletes who attended came away with a number of lessons learned.
Men’s lacrosse player Tim Wright commented that “Being able to network with former alumni in both our field of study and other fields was very beneficial. The alum I sat with was very talkative and made everyone feel comfortable at our table. He not only talked about his experiences in the real world but brought up events that happened in college that helped his career. This helped me realize how playing a sport in college really impacts your future.”
Courtney Gibbons, a member of the women’s swimming and diving team, said that “Getting to hear the success that Geneseo athletes have had in their careers was motivational and helpful. They have been through everything we are going through now and knew exactly what to say to help us out and to make us feel more confident about the tracks we are all on.”
The alumni participants were equally impressed by the current student-athletes. A good number of the alumni participants have made multiple appearances at the dinner, including Maggie Benham ’07.
“What I find, invariably, is that student-athletes often have a strong motivation to be better versions of themselves. An event like this helps them to get some perspective around being an athlete and perhaps helps them visualize how they can use skills they are cultivating now to serve them in the years to come,” commented Benham. “Alumni who attend this event recall the utility of the lessons they received at Geneseo as paramount to their current success. As always, I'm impressed with SUNY Geneseo student-athletes for their motivation and their authenticity.”
Brian Bennett, director of design and publications and a member of the athletic communications' staff, attended this year's dinner.