NewsAug 6, 2019

Investing in youth and social change

Celebration honors philanthropist behind innovative Lesley education partnership that elevated diverse group of inner-city students

George Weiss holds up a bronze football jersey
Above: George Weiss holds up a bronzed football, reminiscent of the pigskins he gave to students in 1991.

How do you thank a stranger who became a friend and mentor, kicked your behind when your studies started to slip, and — oh, yeah — picked up the tab for your college education?

With a bronzed football, of course. (There’s a story behind that.)

On Aug. 3, Lesley University hosted a reunion with Hartford, Connecticut, financial manager George Weiss and about two dozen of the people he made a promise to in 1991: graduate from high school and your college is paid for.

Group photo with George Weiss and Anne Larkin in front
George Weiss and Professor Emerita Anne Larkin stand with the students who attended college thanks to Say Yes To Education.

Weiss kept his promise to those people, now in their mid-30s, who were second-graders in Cambridge’s former Harrington School, with an economically disadvantaged population of multicultural learners, many from Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil. Their prospects of graduating high school, much less pursuing higher education, often seemed unimaginable, Say Yes alumnus Sam Pierre said at the Aug. 3 dinner in Alumni Hall.

Because of Say Yes — its partnership of Weiss, Lesley and a number of sponsors — the chance at a college degree was “entertainable and attainable.”

During the dinner’s speaking program, Pierre paid tribute to his sponsors, Brookline residents Michael and Jill Glazer, who could not be in attendance. He spoke about his difficultly learning to ice skate, marred by repeated falls — “Mr. Glazer was there to pick me up every single time.” — using it as a metaphor for the kind of forbearance that propelled him into various work in the chiropractic field as well as the music and entertainment industries.

“What was Mount Everest to me, was Tuesday to them,” Pierre said, saying his Say Yes sponsors inspired him to defy obstacles and stop believing achievement was beyond his capacity. “That’s why I persevered.”

Other sponsors recognized by individual alumni in their group were Ed Orenstein and his late wife, Rosanna Sattler; Cambridge City Councilor (and past Lesley adjunct faculty member) Dennis Carlone and his wife, Katie; and Manuel and Maria da Silva, of Marblehead.

Three women smiling at the camera.
From left: Anne Larkin, Beth Ribeiro and Barbara Ulm

Sponsors for Say Yes were local residents who contributed to the students’ academic and social development and, even more important, stuck with the students throughout the 17 years of school, from the time benefactor Weiss made the promise to the group of second graders (who believed they were about to hear an announcement about a field trip to the Franklin Park Zoo), through four years of college.

“This was a key part of our lives, as well,” said Dennis Carlone. “Seeing children grow up into wonderful adults.”

Three Say Yes alumni went on to graduate from Lesley, and 32 students went to other colleges, universities and career-training schools, including some Ivy League institutions. Some, like Guillermo Moronta (sponsored by the Carlones), went on to become teachers, themselves.

“When I was around them, I felt I was a better person,” said Moronta, a Bates College alumnus who is now associate director of admissions for Tabor Academy, a prep school in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Marion.

Coordinating the Say Yes academic and extracurricular activities throughout, along with the late Dr. Jose Ribeiro, were Lesley Professor Emerita Anne Larkin and administrative support specialist Barbara Ulm (now retired from the university), who were honored by the alumni for their contributions.

Larkin, who counted her work on the Say Yes partnership among the highlights of her long, august career at Lesley, told a Boston Globe reporter, “I tell people my team raised 69 kids, from the beginning at grade 2 and straight through high school and college graduation, and never let go.”

At the dinner, Larkin recognized new President Janet L. Steinmayer, as well as previous presidents she worked for: Jeff Weiss, Joseph Moore and Margaret McKenna, especially, who with George Weiss brought the program to Cambridge. She also called Ribeiro, whose widow, Beth, was in attendance, “The heart of Say Yes.”

But the financial muscle behind the chapter, and numerous others across the country, was George Weiss.

A man and woman hug
The joyful reunion was a celebration of the graduates' accomplishments and the many people who helped them achieve their goals.

In introducing Weiss, alumna Seher Sikandar, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business (Weiss’s alma mater), talked about how humbled she was to have received a full college scholarship from the program, while other students of color were denied such opportunity. In addition, because of the color of their skin or other more particular aspects of their cultural background (Sikandar is Pakistani-American), they face discrimination. She said she is keenly aware of her advantage of having been part of that second-grade cohort in 1991.

“Say Yes does not offer a handout,” she said. “It’s an investment in systemic change.”

Weiss, who had met privately during a reception with the Say Yes to Education alumni — and listened to each of their stories and what the program meant to them — was visibly moved by Sikander’s introduction. Later, he told a few jokes, shared a few brief remembrances, but then ended with why the program was so important.

“It’s not a level playing field,” he said, indicating that it is up to those with advantage to furnish opportunities to the disadvantaged.

The beneficiaries of Weiss’s generosity and vision presented him with a bronzed football — reminiscent of the pigskins he distributed to all the students years ago to impel them to earn their sheepskins — festooned with the engraved “We took it, and we ran with it.”

“God Bless Say Yes!” Weiss said, wrapping up the celebration.