Gregory retiring after decades as executive director

📸 Courtesy photo

BRIMFIELD — When Susan Gregory started working at Hitchcock Free Academy in 1989, cake decorating was a big trend. Like all trends, it had its run, and in time, slowly faded away.

“Recently someone came to me and introduced the idea of cake decorating as a new thing. I laughed. Life is cyclical.” Let’s Cake Decorate has been a successful venture in the craft’s recent revival at Hitchcock, offering workshops for kids and adults in seasonal concoctions such as a witch cake, scarecrow and snow globe. In thirty years, there has been a lot of change and cyclicality: in trends, in staff and leadership, and in the community, with Sue bearing witness to it all. With her retirement just around the corner, she is brimming with stories and reflections, and hopes for the organization’s future.

Hitchcock’s story started 134 before Sue was hired, when, in 1855, Samuel Austin Hitchcock built and founded the area’s first free high school, welcoming students from all over the region to attend. In 1954, when Tantasqua, the area’s current regional public high school, opened its doors, Hitchcock’s future was uncertain, but ultimately it was decided that it remain in operation as a community center. When Susan took over as director just over three decades later, the position was 15 hours a week, and programming was minimal. She worked to build and grow the offerings, and her role grew along with it, ultimately evolving into a full-time gig running a fully operational community center doubling at times as a preschool and a senior center.

Being a community center has meant a lot of different things over the years. In 2011, when a tornado tore through Brimfield and neighboring towns, Hitchcock became home to FEMA and MEMA, offering assistance for residents who were left homeless or with damage to their property. Working with the senior center which was leading the support effort, Sue was also put in charge of collecting clothing donations, and rose to the occasion, reaching out to Timberland, the sporting goods company, to secure shoes for those in need, including a pair of size 15EEE boots that had been requested. She further employed her grant writing experience to offer writing workshops and art therapy session to help residents process the trauma of what had occurred.

With the ever-evolving needs of a small nonprofit, its leader must evolve as well to meet them. Aside from her official role as Executive Director, she held a few unofficial rolls as a social worker, nurse, plumber, exterminator,— the list goes on.

A role she has enjoyed and embraced is acting as a historian, preserving and sharing the story of the building as the pieces have come to her over the years. Many stories are a joy to tell, like one she heard at a reunion of academy students, where a Hitchcock alum spoke of visiting the building during off hours one winter and throwing rocks at the girl’s side of the building, thinking he’d never be discovered, not realizing that he’d left footprints in the snow that led straight to his house.

Asked how she went about learning so much of the building’s history, Sue said, “People are always asking questions, so I have wanted to be able to answer those questions.” She read and regularly consults a comprehensive book about Hitchcock’s history that was written in the 1970’s by Alice Sawin Davis. Of course, then there are the people who stop in and tell the tales of back in the day.

Along with knowing the history of the building, Sue has had to work hard to preserve it.

“I feel like I’ve made a stamp in caring about this building. It took me ten years to get the ramp added to the building — just after my own children were no longer in strollers,” she added as an aside, laughing. “It took me another ten years to get the handicap-accessible bathroom. There was a woman who attended AA meetings here, and needed to be carried up the stairs to attend. She came in in tears to thank us for it.”

Perhaps the most important role that has evolved is that of a fundraiser.

“When I first came here, we were giving money away. The endowment was used to pay 50 percent of classes. I started growing the classes, and the percentage contributed from the endowment was decreasing, until there was no contribution, and tuition went up to cover the increasing expenses.” Fundraising is essential to keep offerings affordable.

A fun anecdote related to fundraising was when a collection of Native American books was discovered in the attic by carpentry students from Tantasqua. Their instructor too them into the attic to examine the construction of the building.  The books were a study in native dress with watercolor illustrations that the organization was ultimately able to sell to the Mohegan Sun Museum at $1,000 per book. The funds were used to renovate the building’s Memorial Room, now a museum-like space which houses and preserves precious historical pieces such as original furniture and antiques once belonging to Hitchcock’s founder.

One of Sue’s crowning achievements was earning a $250,000 donation from MGM, who, despite the wishes of some of the board at the time, was hospitably welcomed by Sue while they investigated the viability of a casino in Brimfield. That donation has served as a fund to cover capital repairs, and has been tightly managed in order to have long-term impact.

Likely Sue’s greatest financial skill is saving money. Ever the Yankee, she has always found ways to save money to ensure she ends the year in the black, which she has done successfully every single year.

Ultimately the organization’s future, financially and otherwise, is dependent on meeting the needs of an ever-changing community, which in recent years has proved challenging.

“When I started there were no yoga classes offered anywhere else nearby; there is much more competition outside for things we offer that didn’t used to be.” With so many competing offerings, and technology having made such a huge impact on what community looks and feels like, Hitchcock’s future is once again uncertain, presenting a significant but exciting challenge for its new leadership.

When asked what her wish is for the future of the Center, other than the elevator she has long wanted, Sue says, “it’s that we continue to evolve to meet the needs of the community. I hope that the sense of welcoming will stay intact. But it doesn’t have to be the way I did it. That was the biggest takeaway from my 30th anniversary.”

On her official 30th anniversary, the board and staff encouraged the community to stop by and say thank you. Cards, letters, and gifts streamed in, as did visitors, who stopped in to offer a word of thanks face-to-face.

“I don’t need praise,” Sue says. “It doesn’t run my engine, but being acknowledged on my anniversary allowed me to take some time to see the impact.”

She recalls a playfully offered mandate from a former board president, Jim Adams, who told her to “fill the building.”

Jim now says, “When I watch little kids march across the street from the parking lot, it fills my heart.”

As Sue marches toward retirement, may a legacy of hard work for the good of a community carry Hitchcock forward and continue to fill the building with people making memories.

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