College remembers late bursar Mary Kate Shea ’81

On Thursday night, Mary Kate Shea ’81, the College bursar, passed away unexpectedly. President of the College Adam Falk notified the community in an e-mail he sent out on Friday afternoon, in which he honored Shea’s tenure at the College and her renowned diligence and kindness in working with students.

Shea served as the College bursar for five years, after working as the director of the College’s conferences office from 2009 to 2012. Shea came back to the College after a successful career in the events planning and sports industries, working for NBC in the 1996 Olympics, the NBA, the Massachusetts Sports & Entertainment Commission, the 2002 Winter Olympics, Dartmouth, Connecticut College and the Children’s Miracle Network.

In her time as bursar, Shea emphasized the need for more interactions with students, and was instrumental in the implementation of various new systems of student check-ins, such as room draw or parking registration holds, that “drastically reduced the number of people in a difficult situation, because it addressed it sooner,” according to Controller Susan Hogan. “I would say she was responsible for getting families in touch with the College more often and more promptly, because we’ve been able to set some other times to interact,” Hogan said.

“We were more involved than in previous years,” Jill Mendel, the controller’s office accounting assistant, said. “The barriers to coming to see us were lower and it made coming to the bursar’s office more comfortable and welcoming for students, to not only come when you’re in trouble, but come before there is trouble.”

“I think she humanized the process,” Matthew Sheehy, Shea’s colleague on the Village Ambulance board and the College’s associate vice president for finance, said. “She really took the process and said, ‘What makes sense for students?’ ‘What makes sense for families?’ ‘When are people thinking about this?’ ‘What does the College calendar look like?’ and ‘When are people going to be worried about things?’ What at times can be a very transactional process, I think she humanized it by talking to families on the phone, understanding people’s issues and really taking to light what that means to them.”

“I think everyone will tell you her commitment was unparalleled,” Hogan said.  “There was never an e-mail, a phone call that went unanswered, because she realized when students have holds or get a note saying, ‘you’re behind,’ it’s really stressful, and she wanted to eliminate that stress as soon as possible. She was a quintessential New England woman: She was no-nonsense, do what you’re supposed to do, do it when you’re supposed to do it, do it well … and she expected that out of herself and everyone else. She worked tirelessly to get students through some very difficult situations, and I have been blown away by how many people across campus – parents, students, co-workers – have been sending emails reaching out to the controller’s office to say something special about Mary Kate.”

An avid sports and Red Sox fan, Shea also supported the Ephs at their sporting events, especially basketball games. Not only an alumna of the College herself, but a member of an Eph family including her father John Shea ’50 and brother Tim Shea ’90, Shea was “an Eph through and through,” Sheehy said. “If you knew where to look for Mary Kate, it wasn’t unusual to see her doing her stroll through Route 2 in Williamstown.”

Shea served with Sheehy on the board of the Village Ambulance service, working on the group’s merger committee to address continued provision of EMS services. “She was a tireless advocate. She was always there at the table, rolling up her sleeves, there to solve problems and push organizations forward,” he said. “She was a delightful person, and one of the most dependable people. Her values were her values, and you knew very clearly where Mary Kate stood on an issue – there was no mincing of words or gray area, and I think that’s what made her good at the job she did. She knew when to say ‘This is as much as we can do,’ but she also knew when a situation called for something else. She lived her life a certain way, and she stuck to those morals and values, and exuded them in many ways, whether at work or in the community. She was just a good person – I can’t think of any interaction with her that wasn’t positive and spot-on.”

“She was very dedicated and very devoted to Williams in general and the community of Williamstown,” Assistant Bursar Paula Langer said. “She cared about a lot of people.”

In her personal life, Shea loved supporting her sports teams and spending time with her family, both taking care of her parents and visiting Cape Cod with her siblings and nieces and nephews. “She was an incredible caregiver to her parents, and she worked that into her daily life, and when they passed away she had just started to broaden what she did with her time – but definitely Williams athletics, and her family,” Hogan said.

“She had a lot of changes within her own family in the last two years, and she was working through that, but it didn’t affect her support or impact on the community by any stretch,” Sheehy said.

“Her family says she was born to be an event planner, with a legendary love of detail that made her the champion of the conferences office, and an authentic warmth that welcomed everyone,” Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding said. “Mary Kate was one of everybody’s favorite colleagues.”

There will be a memorial service for Shea at 4 p.m. tomorrow in Thompson Chapel and a reception following the service in the Faculty House. Both events are open to all faculty, staff, students and members of the College and Williamstown community. In lieu of flowers, all are welcome to donate to the Jimmy Fund, which supports the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.