Mary Brignano began her career with McCullough Communications, a small public relations and publishing company in Pittsburgh. She has since written more than 40 histories for clients such as UPMC, Giant Eagle, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Reed Smith, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. We sat down with her to chat about the new history book: Chatham: A Transformational University, 1869-2016.
Q: How did you become involved in the project?
A: Esther Barazzone knew that I had written a history of UPMC, and asked if I would like to come in and discuss the opportunity. I had a very nice meeting with her, (Board of Trustees Member) Jane Burger and (Vice President for Planning & Secretary to the Board) Sean Coleman.
Q: What had been your experience with Chatham, or what did you know about Chatham, before you started?
A: I had thought of Chatham as a very good small liberal arts school for women. It was an absolute revelation to see what it had become, and how quickly. Esther at one point had asked if I was surprised at what happened, and I said oh my goodness, yes! I had had a very positive feeling about Chatham, but I had no idea how it had exploded.
Q: What’s something that you were surprised to learn?
A: Well, Eden Hall was a real revelation–the uniqueness of that; it’s very interesting. I was also surprised to learn how active the board has been in keeping the institution so successful for the past 25 years. It’s a very dynamic board that cares deeply about the school. The whole place has a really good culture.
Q: Tell me one thing that was rewarding and one thing that was challenging about writing the book.
A: It was rewarding to learn about how an institution can change so much, one that is so historic. Often institutions get mired down in their history, and Chatham just didn’t. Chatham had a sense of “We know where we have been, where we want to be, and we know we can do this.” Chatham knew how to keep the good things in the face of change.
It was challenging to try to get it all in under 1000 pages! I would love to have mentioned more of the people I learned about—so many good teachers, and such remarkable women graduates. It’s frustrating to have to leave out so many things that you want to put in.
Q: Did you choose the title, A Transformational University?
A: Yes—when that title came, I thought “Okay, this is it!”
Q: What figure from Chatham’s past would you most like to have dinner with, and why?
A: Well, I always liked to have dinner with Esther because she’s a lot of fun. But I would have to say Lilla Greene, who was an alumna who graduated in 1908 and was one of the very first social workers. Lilla was hired by the Sage Foundation to go into tenements and interview people who had received eye injuries on the job, or otherwise had eye problems because of their work. Philanthropy had become scientific in the late 19th century—it was all about observing and measuring, in this case to gather information that would support and encourage change in workplace safety. I thought it was transformational that Chatham had created this department where women could go out and get investigative jobs like that. Lilla’s story is on page 38 in the book.
Q: Great. Any final thoughts?
A: I just want to say how much I enjoyed working with everyone at Chatham, getting to know everyone and getting to know the school. It made me want to go back to school for Food Studies! I sat in on a class taught by (Program Director and Associate Professor) Alice Julier, and it blew me away. I just loved it.