In the Division of Alumni Affairs and Development (AAD) for the past 27 years, Laura Toy uses fundraising to tell stories about Cornell—stories that describe the university today and that imagine how philanthropy can shape it for tomorrow.
In the last five years alone, Toy spearheaded transformative endeavors that include the new humanities building, Klarman Hall; the launch of the Engaged Cornell program; and the renovation and expansion of the university’s health center, Cornell Health.
Connecting with Cornellians, she brings their hearts and minds back to campus by first lighting up their senses. “I would describe scenes like walking across the Arts Quad,” she told colleagues during a training session she led in April. “Maybe it’s snowing. The clock-tower chimes might be ringing.”
Toy evokes nostalgia through other creative ways. “One of my secret weapons is apples,” she said, smiling. For faraway alumni who have roots in the Northeast, she said, nothing conveys the tart flavors of home better than samples from Cornell Orchards.
Toy knows that the story of Cornell philanthropy is as old as the university itself, starting with Ezra Cornell’s first endowment gift and a land grant from the state of New York.
For her, Cornell has always represented bold ideals, and its commitment to “knowledge for the public good and not for knowledge’s sake” was a big reason she and her husband, Lou Duesing, both chose to work for the university in 1990.
Duesing retired in 2015 after a 21-year-stretch as head coach for women’s cross country and track and field, and after several more years as a part-time and then volunteer assistant coach. In May, Toy will finally become his “partner in retirement.”
An athlete’s insight into fundraising
Toy’s experience as a competitive gymnast in high school and college served her well when she first joined Cornell as an athletics fundraiser. “I learned to take risks and that you have to get up when you fall and do it again to be able to perfect your routine,” she said.
Within a year, Toy became athletics’ fundraising director. In 1996, she was AAD’s project manager for the renovation of Lincoln Hall, and, by 1998 her responsibilities included oversight of fundraising for colleges, units, and special projects. During this period, she also led a successful $200 million scholarship challenge, as well as a campaign for athletics. She became interim AAD vice president in 2005 and associate vice president in 2006. In 2010, she joined the Principal Gifts office, which works with the university’s most generous philanthropists.
“Laura has that background and way of thinking that’s all about sportsmanship, teamwork, and staying calm,” said Jeffrey McCarthy, director of Principal Gifts.
He also praised her vision: “She’s very much attuned to the university’s priorities. She never loses sight of them.”
Laurie Robinson ’77, former director of development and Toy’s former peer at Principal Gifts, added: “She wasn’t just on the lookout for the individuals she worked with. If she came across something in her research that would be helpful to us in working with our people, she shared it because she wanted everybody to succeed.”
Fundraising as matchmaking
Jim Mazza ’88, associate vice president for alumni affairs and Toy’s decades-long colleague, considers fundraisers as “matchmakers between the needs and priorities of the institution and the aspirations of alumni, parents, and friends.” For him, Toy is a standard bearer.
“She has left her fingerprints on the bricks of this institution. She’s among the great fundraisers who’ve come before us, and who’ve changed the face of the university,” he said.
Teaching and inspiring
As Toy strengthened ties between the university and its supporters, she also helped train and galvanize the next generation of fundraisers.
Michelle Houle Hitz ’98 assisted Toy in Principal Gifts, and she considers the experience as “Higher Ed Fundraising 101 and 102” and as an advanced course on the university. “I learned so much about Cornell in that first year,” she said.
Hitz has since become a frontline fundraiser for the College of Arts and Sciences, her alma mater. “Laura inspired me, and, hopefully, I can inspire other people,” she said.
A career of learning
Acquiring and sharing knowledge is one of the natural perks and the greatest pleasures of working for Cornell, according to Toy.
“When I think about what I’ve been able to learn over my career here, it’s remarkable—whether it has to do with music or science or engineering, even astronomy, you name it. What a gift!” she said.
Bob Staley ’57, MBA ’59—a trustee emeritus, Presidential Councillor, and a lifelong donor who co-chaired the athletics campaign with trustee Jan Rock Zubrow ’77—was always impressed with Toy’s knowledge.
“She always did her homework so well. She could answer any question regarding Cornell programs,” he said, adding that he admires Toy’s commitment to lifelong learning: “Learning is the game. It happens outside the classroom as well as inside the classroom.”
As Toy looks ahead to her retirement, she looks back at her proudest accomplishment: lasting relationships with Cornell’s supporters, volunteer leaders, and colleagues.
The sentiment is mutual.
“Laura is the consummate Cornell development professional and has served the university in a variety of instrumental ways. She has led with deep commitment and insight,” said Fred Van Sickle, vice president for AAD. “We will cherish her contributions as we wish her and Lou their well-deserved, next life-chapter.”
An emeritus chair of the Cornell University Board of Trustees and a loyal volunteer leader and donor, Harold Tanner ’52 added: “It’s been a privilege working with Laura, and I wish her every happiness in the future. I will miss working with her.”
Tanner treasures the mementos he received from Toy, like a birthday card with an illustration of Touchdown the Bear, the Big Red Band, and McGraw Tower, which instantly takes him back to his beloved alma mater.
“I keep it on my desk at all times,” he said.