20 Under 40 recipient Lenore VanderZee talks leadership in the North Country.


For SUNY Canton’s Lenore E. VanderZee, success is built on family, community and in aiming for what you love, the last of which she works to make possible for all students, regardless of income.

As the institution’s executive director for university relations, Ms. VanderZee, who began as an adjunct professor at SUNY Canton, said she works to further the message that college should be accessible to all who are academically qualified, not just those who can afford it.

“We think a college education is for everybody that wants one,” she said. “It’s not for the wealthy, or for a certain class.”

Ms. VanderZee said in her own journey, the best advice she’s received came from her aunt, Marchiene Rienstra, who told her if you do what you love, you’ll get to where you want to be.

She said when her aunt sought ordination in the

Christian Reform Church and was turned down, she went elsewhere, and was ordained in six other denominations.

“She always did exactly what she wanted, even when she was told she couldn’t, and that was what inspired me,” Ms. VanderZee said.

She also said her “no nonsense” law school mentor Mary Ellen O’Connell had an impact on her, describing her as an extremely intelligent and thoughtful woman whose writing and commentary on drones and military intervention has been featured in national media such as the New York Times, CNN and NPR.

Ms. VanderZee, a mother of two young boys, said she hasn’t had to sacrifice anything to succeed because she has had the support of her family, friends and colleagues, both at the college and in the community.

“It’s amazing what a strong support network can do to boost a person emotionally, professionally, in every way,” she said.

Evidence of this came recently when she spent time with her son after a hectic period at work, and told him she felt guilty that she had been too busy to see him.

He disagreed, reminding her that she hadn’t been too busy to spend time with him at the park, to play games and to cuddle with him in that moment.

“There’s always going to be issues and crises at home and at work, but they always pass,” she said.

Ms. VanderZee, who came to Canton as a “trailing spouse” in 2012 when her husband found work in SUNY Canton’s Humanities Department, said she has committed to stay in the north country for the long term, because she has met many tireless public servants who have inspired her to get involved.

“When we moved here, it very quickly felt like home,” she said. “My family and I were welcomed into the community in meaningful ways.”

Like many other rural communities in the north country, she said Canton’s main challenges center around keeping the local economy alive, and in drawing visitors to town.

She said she believes competition in a small town is good for the entire community and that bringing in new business won’t lead to the failure of those that already exist.

“I think that more businesses, even of the same type, draw more attention to the community,” she said, hoping for her sake and others that Canton will someday be home to an Indian restaurant, which many people have been asking for. “The more there are, the more traffic everybody gets. It’s not a zero sum game.”

Ms. VanderZee, who sits on several local boards in Canton, also said that for north country leaders to attract and hold onto young professionals, they must make sure residents realize what has been accomplished in their communities over the years, the richness of culture they have, and what potential exists for their local economy to grow.

She said for Canton, the St. Lawrence International Film Festival was an event which promoted that awareness, for both residents and visitors, and elicited many positive reactions from producers, filmmakers and others, who called the community “a lovely place.”

“That’s the way I hope that everyone in Canton can feel about our own community,” she said.

— Alan Rizzo



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