Cover Story

Leading with Grace

Jill Leauber Marsteller ’78, P’18 has a unique perspective of Ursinus, having been a student, alumna, parent, senior vice president for advancement, and now as the college’s first female president. This is her story, told though the lens of some of the conversations she’s been part of throughout her educational and professional journey … and the people who have influenced her the most.
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“You’re going to be tired for the rest of your life.”  

There’s always that one professor—the one who helps to shape a student’s identity, who inspires, challenges, and mentors. For Jill Marsteller—then Jill Leauber, an Ursinus College English major—that professor was Gayle Byerly.   

To this day, one of the most important aspects of an Ursinus education is the chance for a student to work closely with a faculty member on research and scholarship. And perhaps one of the best compliments a student can receive is to be handpicked by a professor for that individualized attention. 

Jill Leauber Marsteller, President of Ursinus College

Before her senior year, Marsteller had already talked to Professor Louis “Jim” DeCatur about doing an honors paper on Shakespeare, but she worried about coming up with an original idea given centuries of writing on “The Bard.” And then, unexpectedly, Byerly, a professor known for both rigor and innovation, approached her and asked to be her honors adviser.  

“I just can’t even begin to tell you what that was like,” a still-flattered Marsteller said, recounting the memory.  

After talking through some ideas, Marsteller and Byerly decided the honors paper would focus on whether the 19th Amendment, which was passed in August 1920 and gave women the right to vote, changed the role of female protagonists in short stories of the 1920s. A lot of those stories came out in magazines, and to get access to those, Marsteller sat in the Free Library of Philadelphia looking though microfiche, a daunting task because of how the stories were categorized, but one she gamely but wearily, accepted.  

After hours of research, Marsteller arrived at her first meeting at Byerly’s home in Glenside, Pa., with 20 typewritten pages of her thesis in hand.  

“As she slowly thumbed her way through the document, I had a bad feeling,” Marsteller recalled. “Then she looked up at me and through her glasses, stared me in the eye and asked, simply, ‘Where is your outline?’ That sentence hung like a stiff pair of newly washed pants on a backyard clothesline in the cold winter air. I had no answer.” 

Marsteller recalled that Byerly said, “Jill, you need to start over. And you need to bring me a very thorough outline the next time we meet. I’m afraid we cannot do anything with this document until that happens.” 

Deflated, Marsteller said she lamented having to go back to the drawing board, and told her mentor that she was juggling a lot: student teaching, taking a night-school class, working a part-time job, and trying to write the paper.

“I told Dr. Byerly, simply, that I was tired,” she recounted.  

Marsteller continued, “I don’t think I was expecting an answer to that. I was just embarrassed at being this far along in my field and so unprepared. I felt I owed my adviser and accomplished professor a reason for not putting forth my best work. But instead of silence, I was met with a line that has stayed with me forever.  Dr. Byerly, again meeting my eyes with her steely blue ones, uttered these exact words, ‘Well, Jill, if you intend to do everything you have told me you want to do in your future, this is just the beginning. You are going to be tired for the rest of your life.’” 

“Little did I know how prescient her statement was,” she said. “So many times, in the decades that have followed, I’d find myself in a set of circumstances leaving me exhausted, and I would hear Dr. Byerly’s words, just smile silently and keep pushing through whatever it was. I learned so much in that one moment about grit and determination and holding yourself to your best and highest standards. It was one of the hardest, yet most poignant lessons of my college experience.” 

“Have you ever considered teaching college?” 

But that was not the only lesson to be learned. The other one follows a sentiment on a sign that hangs in Marsteller’s office today: Sometimes, on your way to a dream, you take a detour and find a better one. 

Marsteller had been on a sure path to an initial dream of high school teaching for as long as she could remember. And then a road not taken on her Ursinus pathway led her to a better dream. 

During her junior year, Marsteller was taking a Victorian literature class taught by H. Lloyd Jones. While she was definitely filling out an element of the core curriculum at the time, she was mostly on a mission. Jones, her first-year composition instructor, was the sole professor in her college career to give her anything less than an “A” in an English class. With that now-characteristic tenacity, Marsteller decided she was going to take whatever Jones was teaching to prove that she had evolved and to avenge the scar of that “B.” 

But during a crucial class presentation on a Victorian author—something that accounted for a significant percentage of the final class grade that semester—Jones wasn’t present.  

“He was also the dean of admissions and must have been out recruiting students on the days of my presentation. Sitting in for Jones was the Academic Dean of the College, Richard Bozorth,” Marsteller said. “Dean Bozorth was an enigma. He was brilliant, but you never really knew where you stood.” 

Dismayed, but still determined, Marsteller put everything she had into her presentation. At the end of the multi-day event, she received only a simple note. It read, “Please make an appointment to come see me in my office.” She was perplexed and concerned. At the time, being summoned to the office of the academic dean of the college was unheard of. 

“I couldn’t imagine what I’d done wrong,” she said. “I dutifully followed through, but I was terrified. I walked into his office, took my seat and waited. It is how I imagine defendants in a courtroom must feel waiting for their verdict.” 

Eventually, words came. “Miss Leauber,” he said.  “I want you to know I have never seen anything quite like your presentation.” Marsteller immediately felt like taking ‘Victorian Literature’ might have been the worst choice during her time at Ursinus. She took a deep breath, and then the better dream emerged. Bozorth leaned over his desk and uttered nine words that would be life changing: “Have you ever considered teaching at the college level?”  

This was one of many moments that Marsteller considers serendipitous in her life. Some years later, after earning her master’s degree at Villanova University and then relocating for a time to Chicago, she returned home to Pennsylvania married and with a beautiful baby boy named James.  The night before the baby’s christening, she was prompted by a friend and former fellow teacher from Chicago to reach out to Ursinus as a volunteer. He said to her, “How about you call that little school you love so much and offer to do something for them?” 

Pres. Marsteller on Commons porch

So, she did. She started essentially as a volunteer administrative assistant   for the English department. But less than six months later, she said, “the unimaginable happened in every way.” Dean Bozorth died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack over the Thanksgiving break and Marsteller was asked to become a lecturer in English to help cover the department’s needs.   

“I still cannot quite believe what happened in that period of my life. I had my better dream job at the age of 26,” Marsteller said, still somewhat wide-eyed. “I often wonder what would have happened if Dean Bozorth had not substituted in that Victorian English class, or if I never made that initial call to the English department years later.”

“Development is teaching with donors as students.” 

Robert Frost said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”  

Teaching certainly comes in many forms and being at the head of a classroom was something Marsteller wanted to do for a long time. But it’s not the only place to inspire others and awaken them to something beyond themselves. 

Marsteller taught at Ursinus for a few years and was debating whether she should pursue a doctoral degree when another one of those serendipitous moments struck. During dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Professor Jim DeCatur, his wife, Carol, and Ursinus’s new vice president of college relations, John VanNess, Marsteller was introduced to an opportunity that would alter her path and change her life.   

“Carol was very outspoken. She said to John, ‘I don’t know why administrators at Ursinus rarely hire alumni. They’re the people who are products of the school they already love,’” Marsteller said of the dinner conversation. “John turned to Carol and said, nodding my way, ‘Well, what if I were to hire her?’” 

VanNess was looking for someone to direct the annual fund, and he asked Marsteller to apply because she had been elected class agent to the loyalty fund in her senior year.  

“He thought that and my work at the school gave me a leg up.  But teaching was my calling. Or so I thought,” she added, somewhat wistfully. “I told him that I didn’t think directing the annual fund  was right for me because I was really creative, I loved working with students, and I wanted to get my Ph.D. But he convinced me. It was a risk I was willing to take. I told him my resume would be on his desk Monday morning.” 

But, Marsteller said, she felt like she was giving up on her dream job.  

That is, until she saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.   

“There was this piece in the ‘End Paper’ section, I believe, and its title grabbed me. It read, ‘Development is teaching with donors as students,’” Marsteller said. I had never thought of it that way. “It’s teaching. It’s coaching.  It’s about building teams and inspiring donors to have impact—sometimes a life-changing impact—on others.”  

It’s about uniting people and rallying them together to support a community and enable growth and success; to provide resources and build capacity.  

It’s about awakening. 

“Reading that article was like viewing my professional choices through a kaleidoscope,” she said. “Just by turning it ever so slightly, I could alter the picture, but still view the same stones. That changed my life.” 

“If he asked me to lasso the moon for him, I would.” 

For many years during the last decade, Marsteller’s office at Ursinus was on the second floor of the stately Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, a facility that has long held a special place in her heart. Soon after she began to carve out her niche in the college’s advancement office, she was tasked with nurturing the Berman so that it could grow and thrive.  

The person who entrusted Marsteller with the project was the college’s 12th president, Richard “Dick” Richter. 

“[The Berman Museum] was his baby; his vision,” Marsteller said.  

On Fridays, Richter made it a point to visit Marsteller in her office and ask about annual fund progress and alumni participation numbers. One particular day—not a Friday, Marsteller recalls—he had a more pressing matter.  

“He came trundling across the hall to my office, which at the time actually and ironically was in the exact space where my current office is right now in Corson,” she beamed. “We had just started work on the Berman Museum. He said to me, ‘I declared publicly that we weren’t going to use college resources to keep this museum going. We need to raise money. I want you to start thinking of this museum as your project.’ I was at once excited and terrified.” 

Richter started to walk away, but he doubled back. He told Marsteller, “I understand you run the annual fund, but we can’t rob Peter to pay Paul. I’m trusting you to figure it out.” 

“I think I stared at the phone in my office for two days.  And then, recalling lessons learned from Dr. Byerly, I knew I had expectations and standards to meet … so, I just started calling people I knew and said, basically, ‘Hey, do you know anybody who appreciates art?’ And that’s how the first Friends of the Berman Museum group began.” 

It was comprised of faculty, industry leaders, alumni and board members—people who not only appreciated but also loved art.  

“It took three years,” she said, “But ultimately we raised enough money to cover the operating budget, which is basically what the president had requested.” 

During the week that Richter died in 2005, Marsteller had her last phone conversation with him.  

“I was very cognizant of not keeping him on the phone too long,” she said. “But he kept saying, ‘Just one more thing. I want to tell you just one more thing.’”  

One of the final things he shared was that he learned a lot about philanthropy through his relationship with his board of trustees chair, William F. Heefner ’42, who, in the mid-1980s had donated the organ in Bomberger Hall in his mother’s memory. Heefner had told him, “It’s not about asking people for money. It’s about helping others realize what they’re capable of; realizing a dream they never imagined themselves.” 

“And then he asked me why I thought he and his board chair had such a great relationship,” she said. “He told me, ‘It’s because if he asked me to lasso the moon for him, he knew I would, and I knew he would never ask.’” 

“I still find that one of the most poignant statements about any relationship,” Marsteller notes.  

And now, she says, she is living out that comment with her own classmate and board chair, Nina Booz Stryker ’78.  

“What’s going to be your legacy?” 

At Ursinus, Marsteller was instrumental in two successful major fundraising campaigns: a $20 million Patterns of the Future campaign and a $49 million The Next Step campaign. Then, she said, “I had reached a point where I had to make some life decisions. Suddenly, I actually needed to consider a career path.” 

Beginning in 1995, she successfully led significant fundraising efforts at Lehigh University, ultimately, as vice president for university advancement and at Haverford College as vice president of institutional advancement. In 2007, she served as the president of Cedar Crest College before being appointed in 2008 as the chief development officer at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. She returned to Ursinus in 2009. 

“Lehigh was my graduate school in philanthropy,” she said. “The university was a pioneer in the field of development. It also had a habit of hiring its own. I was one of the few non-alumni there, and I was a young woman who was going to be managing a lot of men. It was a risk and a challenge, but Lehigh and my president at the time, Peter Likins, were like Missouri—they both screamed Show Me! I never felt more empowered as a woman than at a place that was all-male until 1971.” 

At Haverford, she said she learned the power of patience, the value of a Quaker culture, and the words of Parker Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak. She also partnered with an incredible president, Tom Tritton, whom she described as, “a person who can engender trust in a handshake.”   

“I remember very early on in our work on the Educating to Lead, Educating to Serve campaign asking [Tritton], ‘What’s going to be your legacy?’ I told him it mattered because this moment in time is going to be known for something,” Marsteller said. 

The question is apropos, given that she is now confronting the very same question, leading her alma mater during a time of such positive momentum. Leaving a legacy can be a monumental task, but it is one Marsteller does not take lightly. She returned to Ursinus to work for the late President John Strassburger, who was succeeded by the late President Bobby Fong, both of whom have left their own legacies on the Collegeville campus.  

Pres Jill Marsteller

Under her leadership as senior vice president for advancement, the college successfully completed its largest comprehensive campaign and secured its greatest individual gift in its history, while growing its campus footprint under its most recent president, Brock Blomberg, a champion of risk-taking and entrepreneurial thinking.  

She said, again reflecting on the people that have most touched her life, “I’ve always been influenced by others around me—not just those above me—and I’m very grateful to have been mentored while now having the opportunity to mentor the next generation. I want to be a good example, especially to women, but I must say that I’ve learned a lot from many younger people who have had a kind of courage and self-awareness that I didn’t possess at their age.” 

But in the end, she noted, “If you try to be the leader that someone else is, it’s going to be a shoe that doesn’t fit. You must have your own style and be authentic. As a role model, you certainly must be cognizant of your words, your mannerisms, your decisions, and how they affect other people, but ultimately you must be yourself.” 

“Still,” she said emphatically, “if I had one piece of advice to offer, I would go back to the sign that is hanging in my office. ‘Sometimes, on the way to a dream, you take a detour and find a better one.’” 

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Background 2 Jill

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