Donor Profile: Wendy Curtis

Wendy Curtis was in transition, and so was her adopted hometown of Millerton, NY.

It was 1991. Wendy had just retired from 16 years in administrative roles at Vassar College. Her father had recently died, her mother would soon require care and before long her three children would be pursuing careers in medicine and education. “I decided to stop working and see what else I could do,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Millerton—where Wendy had settled 20 years earlier with her husband John, a physician—the gap between the “newly arrived” from New York City and the homegrown population was widening.

“The two traditional means of employment—farms and the two large state institutions—were going out of business,” she says. In fact, nearby Wingdale’s psychiatric hospital, the Harlem Valley State Hospital, was shuttered three years later and the Wassaic Developmental Center, once among the largest government employers in Dutchess County, had been slated for closure by 2000.

At the urging of a friend, Sam Busselle, Wendy leapt into local affairs feet first by running for public office. “I thought, ‘I’m sure to lose,’ which I did, thank heavens,” Wendy says, laughing at the memory. “But I knew it would give me a better feeling for the community.”

What she learned shocked her. She met neighbors living at “the most basic level.” Unemployment was widespread. Young people had nowhere to go once school let out. Drug abuse and domestic violence were common.

While the challenges were multiplying, most social services were operating out of faraway Poughkeepsie, and many skeptics in the community regarded public assistance for anyone but the elderly as a handout.  This was especially troubling to Wendy, who was enrolled at Columbia University’s social work school when she met her husband.

By her own account, Wendy was raised in privilege in suburban Cleveland. (While she jokes that her father, also a physician, came from a “poor but proud Southern family,” a maternal ancestor of Wendy’s co-founded Western Union).  Her campaign had brought her face to face with poverty and isolation, but also to the start of her next chapter—as a community leader.

When that persuasive friend Sam hatched a plan to form a council to address Millerton’s problems, Wendy had a bold suggestion.  This new cause would need a face. “Not just people, but a place. A community center,” she says.  

Thus began the formidable effort to open the North East Community Center. Established by Sam and other co-founders to help combat some of Millerton’s social and economic ills, today it is the bustling home of dozens of services for everyone from toddlers to seniors. Wendy devoted time and energy to the center for much of the decade, serving as board chair from 1997 to 2000.

As Berkshire Taconic lent support to a capital campaign for the center, Wendy’s talents—for judging character, understanding motivation and consensus-building—were recognized further afield. She was recruited for the BTCF board as well, and chaired it from 2000-2002.

During that time, Wendy helped make the case for the foundation’s area funds, which support cherished towns or regions and help donors give locally. A donor advisor herself, she set in motion a mobile social services unit, NED Corps, by connecting part-time Millbrook residents Russ and Judy Carson with Berkshire Taconic to help meet the growing need for bilingual caseworkers serving Dutchess towns.

“We're enormously grateful for their leadership here,” Wendy says of the Carsons.

Hers, too. Twenty-plus years after Wendy first toured Millerton in earnest, a beloved community center she helped conceive is serving hundreds of families every year. Through the NED Fund she helped launch, Dutchess residents can support what Wendy describes as “land use, social services, education and arts—all of the things that make for a community.” What’s more, farming and conservation have taken hold once again. Wendy keeps tabs on this progress as an advisor to Dutchess Land Conservancy.

That period of transition would turn out to be just the first of many for Wendy and her town.

But all along, she’s been guided by, and acted on, her core beliefs. “We all live in communities in which there are very real strata of ability to function,” she says. “Some of that is just plain luck, bad or good. And some of it has to do with the institutions that shape us, our families and our schools.

“If we're to live together successfully,” she concludes, “we must understand that you must give as much as you take.”