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Winter 2004

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Who, What, When

Centennial spotlight

On campus

Faculty focus

Arts on view



Class notes


people & projects

Work is play
Life itself
Family film fun
Part of the movement
Taking stock
Relevant Music
Care for Coffee
Peace Corps challenge

Work is play

Elsa Daspin Suisman ’58 was never an actress—she tried it once, she says, at a summer camp in 1948: “I opened my mouth to say the lines and nothing came out.” But she’s loved theater since she was a child and has been a longtime patron.

About ten years ago, Suisman took that love one step further and started producing plays. Jenifer Estess, daughter of classmate Lynn Rosenberg Estess ’58, was working for Broadway producer Daryl Roth, who wanted to move a play—Old Wicked Songs, starring Theodore Bikel—from a not-for-profit venue to a commercial theater. She invited Suisman to be involved. “I raised money for the move and was part of the team that chose the theater, actors, set designer; I worked with the advertising team and oversaw the production,” Suisman recalls. “It was fascinating, and I was hooked.”

She subsequently co-produced several more plays. Her current production, Say Goodnight Gracie—which is touring nationally after a year on Broadway—is a ninety-minute, one-man show telling the 100-year history of comedian George Burns. Suisman has also been working on a musical. The Florida Follies—starring Florence Henderson, Norm Crosby, Carol Lawrence, and Jack Carter—opened January 8 at the Parker Playhouse in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Most people who financially invest in a production do so for either the potential profit or the excitement and “glamour” of Broadway openings, Suisman says. But serving as a co-producer means she has input into production decisions too. And so far, the co-producers she’s worked with have “shared the burden of putting the show together and exchanged ideas with little or no conflict.”

Suisman, a retired divorce lawyer, says her theater work is “an ideal second career, since producing can be done from anywhere, without a formal office or staff.” And the contacts and negotiation skills she relied on as a lawyer have come in handy. In fact, she observes wryly, “Being a trial lawyer was something like acting.” —MTS

Life itself

Plankton—tiny organisms by the zillions—form the basis of the ocean’s food web, nourishing everything from sponges to whales. In fact, the plantlike members of this sea soup fuel the planet’s very life force, by converting sunlight into food through photosynthesis. In the process, they also take up carbon and pump out oxygen, playing a key role in regulating the earth’s atmosphere and climate.

Recently Sallie “Penny” Chisholm ’69 helped lead a genetic comparison study of such marine microbes—four species of minuscule blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria. A professor of biological oceanography at MIT, Chisholm was on the American team that joined with French and Israeli groups to publish their work in online issues of Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It behooves us to understand exactly how…this tiny cell converts solar energy into living biomass,” Chisholm said in a press release. Cyanobacteria are “not just some esoteric little creatures,” she added. “They dominate the oceans,” the more abundant species numbering perhaps 25 million in a single cup of seawater.

The researchers found that each individual alga has only about 2,000 genes—far fewer than the 30,000 for a human (or a mouse). Yet these simple organisms do amazing, vital work, efficiently converting sunlight into, well, life itself. The scientists hope to pinpoint exactly which genes control photosynthesis and how. Among the larger questions: What can these microbes teach us about basic genetics? about harnessing solar power? about controlling the carbon dioxide levels that affect climate change?

“Having the completed genome in hand gives us a…‘parts list’ to use in exploring the mechanisms for these and other important processes,” said the director of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which helped fund the research.
Chisholm has been on the MIT faculty since 1976 and holds the Lee and Geraldine Martin Chair in Environmental Studies. Last April she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for her “pioneering studies” into “the Earth’s primary production.” -SR

Family film fun

As co-founder and creative head of Scholastic Productions, moviemaker Jane Startz ’69 spent more than twenty years developing and producing projects such as The Magic School Bus TV series, the long-running sit-com Charles in Charge, and feature films The Indian in the Cupboard and The Baby-Sitters Club. “It was a great job,” she admits, “but I wanted to concentrate on feature films and be my own boss.” So she started her own company seven years ago.

Her creative role as an independent producer of family-oriented films begins with something Startz thinks would make a great movie: an original idea, an existing book or script, a magazine article. She pitches her ideas to a studio executive—or someone else she hopes can financially back the project—and finds a writer to pen the screenplay. Then she chooses a director, working alongside him or her on all the creative issues—production and costume design, cinematography, music—and making sure the movie stays on budget. When the film’s completed, she works with the distributor on promotion and marketing and helps orchestrate its release.

The business aspect of her job—“trying to convince people to put up money for the projects”—is extremely taxing and demanding, Startz says. “It takes a long time for most projects to get a green light, and to survive as an independent producer, you need blind faith and the ability to live within a framework of economic uncertainty.” But actually making the movies is the fun part. Startz enjoys the collaborative process, working with “a diverse group of incredibly talented people” and getting better at her craft.

Why children’s films? “I have always enjoyed being around children,” says Startz (who has three of her own), “particularly adolescents—they’re funny, endearing, and full of surprises. Young people are profoundly influenced by movies and television, and I find it rewarding to produce work that might generate some positive influence.”

Her most recent film, Ella Enchanted (due out in April, it stars Anne Hathaway and Minnie Driver), is loaded with visual effects. Shot in Ireland, “it’s a big, funny, medieval fantasy—sort of a live-action cross between The Princess Bride and Shrek,” Startz explains. “We worked endless hours, but laughed our way through the entire shoot. I'm hoping that all my future movie adventures are as fun as this one."

Part of the movement

When it comes to dancing, Nancy Schwartz ’79 (far right in photo) believes performance skills and technique “must cohabit in the dancer forever.” Which may explain why she intends to dance well into her 100s. She’s performed with numerous ballet and modern dance companies throughout North America and has taught extensively in New York City and Connecticut. A founding member of Bernier Dance, a professional contemporary-dance company based in Norwalk, Conn., she’s now executive director of its new school, Performance Dance. (All this in addition to maintaining a full-time job as a health-care and technology executive recruiter).

Instructors at Performance Dance—which officially opened, with two brand-new studios, in October—have more than a century of combined experience teaching and performing throughout North America and Europe. “We also attract the best teachers from the New York metropolitan area,” says Schwartz, “and together we ensure that students are taught cutting-edge techniques.”

The school offers ballet, modern, jazz, tap, and hip-hop, as well as workshops in tai chi, yoga, Pilates, and ballroom dancing. There are classes for youngsters, seniors, moms and babies—and, on the horizon: innovative programs for getting the corporate world, and those who are overweight and unfit, into motion. The emphasis, Schwartz says, is on “teaching students how to work with their own bodies and celebrate their own physical and mental uniqueness.”

Prior to her involvement with Bernier, Schwartz had formed two other dance companies. While she refers to Performance Dance as “a labor of love”—created to accommodate a dance company that had outgrown its space—she admits another motive: “Given today’s aggressive and competitive corporate world and massive uncertainty, my goal was to create [an eventual] ‘retirement home’ for me, while building a business opportunity for the company.”

Schwartz—who, because of her full-time job, fronts classes just on Saturdays for now—finds teaching and performing complementary. “You learn so much from your students and are able to apply that to your dancing onstage,” she says. “Every moment in life is an opportunity to learn and then apply that knowledge to your art.” For more information, check out www.performancedance.com. —MTS

Taking stock

The recent decline in the stock market has generated worrisome headlines in the media and big headaches for many investors. But mutual fund manager Nicholas Gerber ’84 has demonstrated an enviable track record in a challenging investing environment.

In 1995 Gerber founded Ameristock Funds, a diversified equity-income fund based in Alameda, Calif. He’s now portfolio manager and stock analyst at the fund, which earned a five-star ranking from Morningstar Inc., a leading provider of investment information, and a recent profile in Crain Communication Investment News. There are two keys to the fund’s success, Gerber told Crain: “being large-cap and combining the best of both active and passive portfolio management.” Current fund assets are $1.7 billion—up from $100,000 in just eight years. Total investors now number 110,000.

After earning an economics degree at Skidmore, Gerber rented a seat on the New York Futures Exchange. He later earned a master’s in business administration at the University of San Francisco and pursued a series of career moves in the investment field. He was serving as portfolio manager in the index unit of Bank of America’s Capital Management, in San Francisco, when downsizing forced him to reassess career options.

Having now created Ameristock and become his own boss, he says smartly, “I’ll never be fired by anyone again—except me.” And Gerber’s “penny-saved mentality and no-nonsense approach have helped him achieve stellar performance, as he beat 99 percent of his peers over the past five years,” according to Crain.

While job security and positive returns for investors are priorities, Gerber’s work offers additional rewards: He loves the flexibility and the continuing education. “Every day offers something new, depending on what I want to learn about that day. There are over 10,000 public companies in this country, and I can research each and every one to learn more about airplanes, farming, insurance, real estate, and biotechnology.” The ultimate prize, he says, is “finding information that others don’t already have.” —AW

Relevant Music

"Kids who play music do better in school and in life.” So says the Web site of No Mayo, a San Francisco–based organization that supports music education in public schools.

Founded in 1990 by Hershel Berry ’89, No Mayo’s nonprofit Music Education Project serves as a grant writer and fundraiser on behalf of music educators and distributes donations of cash, resources, goods and services—everything from instruments to storage cabinets to classroom assistants to transportation—directly to public-school music programs. To date, the organization has donated more than $200,000 to schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.

After several years of establishing roots in the California music community, No Mayo introduced its own record label in 1997. It’s so far released just a handful of albums and focuses on artists, not genres, Berry says. “We work with artists from many styles who are genuinely committed to their craft.” Recent releases include The Soul of John Black, a critically acclaimed CD that showcases the work of musicians John Bigham and Christopher Thomas—who, as one reviewer says, “excel at old-school funk and acoustic hip-hop.” Money from the duo’s record release parties last summer benefited high schools in California and New York.

“There’s something funky about No Mayo Records, and it ain’t just the music,” stated a July Newsweek article titled “Cool for schools.” Donating money to support music education “seems like a cool thing to do,” Berry told the magazine. “If you have a song, the song actually does something.”

At No Mayo, “we believe in the vital role music education plays in a child’s life and in the power of music to make a tangible impact in the community,” Berry says. “In a time when the education system is ailing, it is imperative that we give students every available means of improving their ability to learn and grow.” Music, Berry notes, “is a proven means to that end.” For more information, check out nomayo.org and nomayorecords.com. —MTS

Care for coffee?

Jack’s Coffee was always more than a place to get a cup o’ joe. Besides selling its own gourmet brew, the store (which, in 2002 had four branches—all in New Hampshire) offered a full lunch menu, fresh-fruit smoothies, homemade soups, pastries, and desserts. A year ago, owner Jack Diemar ’98 decided to shut down all but his New London location, which he would expand and improve. “We realized we were running four mediocre stores when we could have one really great one,” he says. It was a smart move. Sales, he says, “are actually ahead of where they were.”

The one-and-only Jack’s Coffee now serves up bistro-style dinners, offers prepared foods and catering services, and doubles as a daytime café for the breakfast and lunch crowd. Diemar, despite having a store manager and telling his employees “they are their own boss,” is nonetheless on the scene from open to close at least six days a week.

The idea for Jack’s Coffee began as a business plan that Diemar wrote up as a Skidmore student for an entrepreneurship class. His store was modeled after the popular Uncommon Grounds coffee-shop hangout on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. “We strayed a bit from the plan in that we have become more of a restaurant than a café,” he says. “But the ideals of the business plan are still there: we offer great food, great service, and a place to meet people and just relax.”

And he doesn’t mind the competition from the name-brand coffee shops. “We like Starbucks, believe it or not. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here. They advertise, so we don’t have to,” he reasons. “Can you imagine our advertising budget if we had to explain to people why they should pay $4 for coffee?! Now, my view might be a little different if they opened across the street, but I don’t need to worry about that for a while.”

Diemar’s satisfaction in running the business comes in knowing that people have a great experience at his store. “That’s when you know all the hard work has paid off,” he says. “And when we’re successful, it enables us to give back to the community, in terms of time and money”—a responsibility he believes in. -MTS

Peace Corps Challenge

In his young life, Michael Neiman ’01 had traveled throughout the US and Europe, spent half a year in New Zealand, and lived in remote conditions in the Gila National Forest. But when the Peace Corps sent him to a far-off village in Malawi, Africa, he realized “all those trips were minor, compared to living in a third-world country.”

Post-Skidmore, Neiman did forest work in New Mexico—clearing and building trails—and taught in New Jersey public schools and at a private school in the Berkshires. Then he decided to follow up on a longtime item on his wish-list: join the Peace Corps. “I was curious to see people and classrooms on the other side of the world,” he says. Within months he was packing his bags for Malawi, a country he’d never heard of. He arrived there in October 2002.

In the village of Chikwawa, Neiman’s primary task was teaching English at the high school, along with eight other teachers—“none of whom, except for the headmaster, had been to university,” he says. Besides being unqualified, they had little incentive to work, Neiman adds, since the Malawi government frequently fails to pay them. “The government has shown no interest in truly helping to educate its younger generation,” he states. “They spend more money on funerals for teachers who die from AIDS than they do for books in the schools.”

The lack of resources was perpetually frustrating, and the conditions were trying: “no electricity, no running water, and hardly any time without 100-degree heat,” Neiman says. “I was burning myself out.” He “officially” taught more than twenty classes a week, and often filled in for others when he found no teacher present. He was also responsible for the school library, which he rebuilt, and had books donated from the schools he’d worked at in New Jersey.

This past fall, Neiman returned to the US, cutting short his two-year term with the Peace Corps. “I knew I wasn’t going to do more in a second year than I’d done already,” he says. “Life is too short to be miserable.” So he came home.

"It was an experience I wouldn't trade for another, but it was intense," he concludes. "Was it a success story? It was a life story." -MTS


© 2004 Skidmore College