Awarding Outstanding Volunteerism

By Veronika Ruff '01

Upon hearing that she had won AAVC’s second annual Award for Outstanding Service to Vassar College, Frances (Frannie) Aaron Hess ’53 joked that the only qualification is to possess the first name Frances. Hess, though, quickly acknowledged her honor in following last year’s winner (and friend), Frances (Franny) Prindle Taft ’42, in receiving this award for extraordinary commitment and leadership in promoting the goals and interests of Vassar College and AAVC.

Hess began serving Vassar immediately after her graduation, as the class of 1953’s elected representative to Alumnae Council. And she certainly didn’t stop there. During the 50 years since “leaving” Vassar, Hess has generously volunteered her time, dedication, and expertise to numerous positions on the AAVC Board of Directors (including serving as AAVC president from 1982–86), the Vassar College Board of Trustees, three regional Vassar clubs, donor societies, and class fund committees. In 1986, Hess won CASE’s (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) first annual Robert L. Payton Award for Voluntary Service, and with the award came a monetary prize to be donated to a nonprofit organization of the recipient’s preference. Hess chose instead to set up a program that would celebrate and encourage student volunteers at Vassar each year and allow them to donate funds to a nonprofit of their choice.

The 2002 recipient of the Frances Aaron Hess ’53 Award is P.E.A.C.E. (Promoting Equality And Community Everywhere), a grassroots social justice organization that works to eliminate bias through mentoring. The student group awarded its prize money to a Poughkeepsie elementary school in which the students work.

Volunteerism was ingrained in Hess at an early age. “I grew up in a family that encouraged volunteering and was always involved in the community,” she said. “The idea that you do things only for pay did not stand. Service to the community was our focus — it’s the idea that a person is always a member of a greater whole, and there is a responsibility to serve that whole.” And for much of that family, Vassar was (and is) their community — 10 of Hess’ relatives attended Vassar, from a grandmother in the class of 1899 to a niece in the class of 1984.

Though Hess gives her time and energy to numerous organizations — the Brooklyn College Foundation, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Temple Emmanuel, the American Jewish Committee, and the League of Women Voters, to name a few — Vassar remains a high priority in this busy New Yorker’s life. Hess has been back to campus at least once a year and has yet to miss a reunion. She said her love for the school and desire to give back is due simply to the “fabulous” education she received. Hess places the utmost importance on education; the Phi Beta Kappa grad went on to receive a master’s in teaching from Harvard and taught secondary school for many years. “Serving Vassar in whatever way I can was a natural decision for me,” she said. “Vassar opened so many different windows and doors. It gave me a frame of reference for approaching life. I do these things because there are jobs to be done, [but through volunteering] I often learn more than I give and continue my own education.”