Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2013

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Paying it forward

Paying it forward
Carolyn and Jerry Holleran pose with students from the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. L-R: Kelsey Burke '13, Elizabeth Kaplan '13, Lucy Wallace '13, Gabrielle Arenge '14, Alia Roth '14 and Valentine Goldstein '14.

For Carolyn and Jerry Holleran, giving back is a way of life

By Monica Raymunt '09


In the Fall of 1956 at the then Connecticut College for Women, President Rosemary Park informed the newly arrived first-year students, “You are all here on scholarship.”

Eighteen-year-old Carolyn McGonigle was shocked; she was sure that her father, the prosperous owner of a Pennsylvania pretzel company, had sent a check for her full tuition.

President Park went on to explain that tuition didn't cover the full cost of education, and that all students were benefiting from the generosity of the donors who had built and supported the College since its founding. 

“I learned that everyone here is walking on the shoulders of many, many people who cared a great ?deal, and gave,” says Carolyn McGonigle ?Holleran '60 GP'07.

It's a credo that Carolyn and her husband Jerry live by — and work hard to impart to others. Over more than three decades, they have donated millions of dollars and countless hours to causes and organizations ranging from small, local programs in their hometown of Reading, Pa., to the College's Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, which they endowed in 1999.

“Their vision and generosity are extraordinary,” says President Leo I. Higdon, Jr. 

The Council of Independent Colleges honored the couple with its 2012 Individual Award for Philanthropy in recognition of their support of higher education, which, in addition to Connecticut College, has included multimillion dollar gifts to Jerry's alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, and Alvernia University, a Catholic college in Reading.

Carolyn, an economic educator and community volunteer leader, and Jerry, a businessman and investor, married in 1982, each bringing three children from a previous marriage. Their first joint project, renovating a row house into two apartments for low-income families, set a pattern for their subsequent philanthropy. 

“We fund programs where we can see the impact,” Carolyn says.

From 1995 to 2005, Carolyn served on the College's Board of Trustees, including four years as vice chair. A history and English major, she credits Connecticut College with teaching her how to think critically and communicate clearly — and to understand philanthropy as an obligation of citizenship. 
“The preservation of democracy requires that everyone participate, not only by voting, but also by caring to raise the bar for everyone — improving every American's quality of life,” she says. 

Jerry earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering as well as a master's in business administration from Carnegie Mellon, where he has served on the board of trustees. He retired in 2010 as chairman of the board of Precision Medical Products, a specialized medical device company he co-founded.  

For both Hollerans, philanthropy is tied to faith and family. Carolyn's father was a successful businessman, but he and her schoolteacher mother came from humble beginnings. Helping others was part of daily life. 

“We always had a big box in one of the closets that was filled with things going to other families,” Carolyn recalls. 

Jerry, born during the Depression, was the youngest of seven children in a Catholic family. “Thinking of others was an expectation,” he says. “We learned that the center of attention in life is your fellow man, not yourself.”

Back in the 1950s, when Jerry could not afford to attend Carnegie Mellon, a local research scientist stepped up and paid the bill. In exchange for his support, he set three conditions: Jerry must keep up his grades, mow his benefactor's lawn in the summer for spending money, and, at some point in the future, “return the favor.”

Jerry did not forget. In 2009, he and Carolyn donated $2 million to Carnegie Mellon as a challenge grant that ultimately created 100 new endowed scholarships. To educate the scholarship recipients about the importance of philanthropy, the couple also provided an endowment that gives the Holleran Scholars $5,000 a year to collectively donate to a charity of their choice.

In recent years, the economic downturn has hit hard in Berks County, Pa., where the couple live. In response, they have focused more of their giving in the region, including gifts to support economic literacy, after-school programs, arts programs, human services and environmental sustainability. Often, they position their contributions as seed money to develop an idea or to leverage larger donations. 

“We're very comfortable getting involved in pilot programs,” Jerry says. “It's been exciting to see the results.”

At Connecticut College, the results of the Hollerans' generosity are visible across campus with support of projects as varied as the student-run Sprout organic garden and the turf field for athletics. The most far-reaching impact, however, is through the Holleran Center's Program in Community Action, which prepares students through coursework and experiential learning to lead change through community collaborations. Since the program was founded in the late 1990s, 255 students (including Katie Williams '07, one of the Hollerans' 10 grandchildren) have graduated and now work in a variety of social justice, advocacy, community-building and public policy roles. 

Among them is Tiana Davis Hercules '04, who, after graduating, earned a master's degree in business administration and a law degree from the University of Connecticut. A native of New London, she is now program director for the City of Hartford, where she works to deliver comprehensive education, employment and economic stability services to city residents. 

“The name in itself — Program in Community Action — inspired me,” Hercules says. “It was nice to have a classroom full of people who were really committed to this ideal of social justice, community justice and community activism.”


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