Harry Van Tassell came to Wagner College to study science in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. A member of Kappa Sigma Alpha fraternity, he loved the College and wanted to complete his education, but economic circumstances simply did not permit him to do so.
He went to work for the military aircraft manufacturer, Republic Aviation Corp., in Farmingdale, Long Island. He married Katherine and had two children, James and Kathy.
Kathy Van Tassell Maxcy remembers her father going to meetings and events to boost Wagner College as an active alumni supporter and chair of the Long Island alumni association. Her brother, James, chose to go to Wagner himself in 1964, majoring in biology.
But then double tragedy struck: Harry Van Tassell lost his job. A short time later, he had a heart attack and died, on September 11, 1966.
A condolence letter to his widow from Wagner President Arthur O. Davidson reads, “Mr. Van Tassell was greatly respected by all who knew him, and we will miss him very much. He was helpful to Wagner in many ways.”
The family was without resource, and it seemed likely that James would have to drop out of college and that Kathy, a high school senior, might not be able to go at all.
Instead, says Kathy, the College rallied around the grieving family. “They literally made sure my brother graduated. They offered me a lot of grants, scholarships, and work programs, so that’s why I chose to go there. I pretty much had a free ride, as they call it. They really came through in a clutch and helped my family a great deal.”
James went on to earn his Ph.D. in ichthyology; now a resident research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, he is one of the world’s foremost experts on goby fish. Kathy, a music major, became a music teacher in Beacon, New York, retiring in 2004.
For 25 years, Kathy has faithfully given back to the College, starting with small gifts (her first paycheck, after all, was only $75) and working her way up to the level of the Inner Circle, the College’s leadership giving society.
Why does she give, and why would she encourage others to join her? “I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot. It was just a great experience. You grow up a lot when you’re away at college.
“If you had a good experience and you now have a good job because of that, you should think about helping others so that they have the same advantage that we had.
“Why should people donate?” she adds. “To pay it forward!”