Alumnae Profiles

on January 30 | in Web Only | by

Martha “Marty” Horton Gecek ’64

Martha Horton GecekSpending a year in Paris changed the course of Marty Horton Gecek’s life. Gecek embraced a new culture. Her French improved. She formed a bond with her host family, one she’s maintained throughout her entire life. Most important, during Hollins Abroad Gecek went on vacation to a tiny, romantic ski village in Austria where she developed a serious crush on a boy. “There’s an aura about ski instructors,” she gushes. “They’re just like gods.”

Gecek, a sociology major, had planned to become a social worker. Now, all she could think about was getting back to Austria. Her senior year at Hollins she signed up for introductory German with the late Professor Theresia Reimers, who also helped her land a job in Salzburg with Kodak.

Three weeks after receiving her diploma, Gecek was back in Austria. “I didn’t know a soul,” she says.

Gecek went to a beer garden, hoping to meet a friendly grandmother who would help hone her conversational skills. Instead, she met Hans Gecek. The ski instructor was forgotten. She married Hans a couple of years later.

After her honeymoon, Gecek began looking for a job. She saw an ad looking for someone who could speak English to work in an office. The Salzburg Seminar in American Studies needed a temp. Gecek got the job.

“At the time, I thought, ‘It’s the most extraordinary place,’” Gecek recalls. “And it still is. That’s why I’ve been here for 50 years now.”

Several Harvard students launched the Salzburg Seminar in 1947 as an international forum where scholars and leaders from across Europe could gather in the historic palace to discuss American literature, art, history, and culture. In the wake of World War II, the founders envisioned it as a kind of “Marshall Plan of the Mind.”

By the time Gecek arrived in the late 1960s, the seminar had already begun moving away from American studies to more international topics, although, the name wasn’t officially changed to the Salzburg Global Seminar until 2007.

Gecek began her career working in the office before going on to work in the library and then serving as a secretary and later an office manager. In the mid 1990s, the United States Information Agency provided the Salzburg Seminar with a grant to create an American Studies Center, which hosted conferences on a variety of American studies themes. Gecek was named its deputy director.

The program’s grant ran out in 2002 and Gecek retired a year later. She now organizes one seminar in American studies each year as a volunteer. The most recent American Studies Seminar, held in September, looked at the future of American foreign policy. It drew 57 scholars and diplomats from 27 countries.

“I have made it my mission to keep American studies programs alive at the Salzburg Global Seminar,” Gecek says. “I’m 72, and I’m still in great health, and I’m hoping to do this indefinitely.”

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Cynthia Woodie ’78

Cynthia WoodieA Miss Piggy doll. An Incredible Hulk figurine. A Looney Tunes clock.

For a quarter of a century, Cynthia Woodie has brought home the bacon by sculpting super heroes, cartoon characters, and the delicate features of porcelain baby dolls.

From when she was a young child, Woodie knew she would one day be an artist. “What I didn’t really expect was that I was going to be a commercial artist,” she says. “Basically, what happens is you have to make a living.”

For most of her time at Hollins, Woodie was working toward a career as a painter. She worked closely with Professor of Art Emeritus Bill White, who recognized her potential right away.

“With art, it’s not so much what people can already do, but it’s their seriousness and willingness to work hard to develop,” he says. “Cynthia certainly had that.”

For her senior year Woodie signed up for a sculpting class taught by Professor of Art Emerita Nancy Dahlstrom, mostly to fill a hole in her schedule. Almost immediately, Woodie realized she’d found her niche. “It was like, ‘OK, this is something I can do and something that really excites me,’” she says.

White arranged for his friend and sculptor Alex Generalis from Philadelphia to visit the sculpting class a few times over the semester to work with the class. Generalis found himself so impressed with Woodie’s work, he invited her to apprentice with him and his partner, Tom Miles, after graduation. “It was a marriage made in heaven,” White says.

After five years working with the sculptors in Pennsylvania, Woodie could no longer resist the call of New York City’s art scene. At first, she worked for a model maker, often producing props for photo shoots. One day, Woodie met a commercial artist who made figurines for what was then the Walt Disney Company. “It was like this bell went off,” Woodie recalls. She suddenly realized an artist had to sculpt toys before they were mass produced. She hit the streets looking for work. Before long, her business had taken off, with a client roster that included Nickelodeon, Mattel, and the Children’s Television Workshop.

About three years ago, Woodie realized she was receiving fewer commissions. The industry was moving to digital sculpture. Woodie gave sculpting with a mouse a try, but she hated it. “It was soul deaf,” she complains. “I want my hands in the clay.”

Happily, Woodie recently started getting a stream of orders again. Her clients tell her their customers gravitate toward the hand-sculpted look. She isn’t sure how long this trend will continue, but she’s happy to be busy right now.

Woodie has also recently made a point to make time for her own creations. Her current passion is nature-inspired pendants cast in sterling silver. “I’m creating something that’s mine,” Woodie says. “It brings great joy to do these little tiny things of my own.”

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Tiffany Marshall Graves ’97

Tiffany Marshall GravesWhile shelving books for her work-study job in the old Fishburn Library, Tiffany Marshall Graves would sometimes tell the other student workers about her dream of becoming a corporate lawyer. Maybe, she’d daydream, she would go to Atlanta and work at the Coca-Cola headquarters.

Graves did go on to become a lawyer, but instead of rubbing elbows with soft-drink executives, she now sits at the helm of Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, where she works to expand access of civil legal services to the impoverished. “It’s a big job, one I take seriously, and one I’m pretty passionate about,” she says.

Graves found her career goals changing a few years after graduating from Hollins, when she took a job as an academic counselor for Virginia Tech’s Upward Bound program. There she worked to encourage at-risk high school students to attend college. “That corporate law thing went out the window at that point,” she says.

In her third year at the University of Virginia School of Law, Graves received the Powell Fellowship in Legal Services. The honor provides an annual salary while the recipient works in public-interest law. Graves used the fellowship to work at the Mississippi Center for Justice in Jackson, where she represented children and families navigating the special education system. “You can help child by child,” she says of that experience, “but it’s really hard to change the system.”

After being recruited by a private law practice, Graves then spent several years as a litigation associate. “I hated it,” she says, “and I had known I would hate it.” Graves credits her tenure in private practice, however, with teaching her the ins and outs of practicing law. “They have the time and resources to train you very well.”

Graves spent the next three years as executive director for the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project before taking her current position with the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. Although the two organizations share similar missions of expanding access to legal services, the commission operates more as a think tank and focuses on big-picture ideas, Graves says.

That doesn’t mean Graves no longer sits down with clients. She also serves as the interim director of the Pro Bono Initiative at the University of Mississippi School of Law. In that position, she supervises students as they work with low-income populations and other attorneys. “I say I have the best of both worlds,” Graves says.

Alumnae profiles by Beth JoJack ’98

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