Photo by Bailey Davidson
When Laura Wood Cantopher ’84, the new president of the Alumnae Association, was a high school senior in Upper Saddle River, N.J., she spent a free period volunteering in the guidance office. One day, the head of guidance, Helen Blanchard ’40, said to her, “I never do this, but you need to go look at Wellesley.” And so Cantopher added Wellesley to her list.
Later that year, she toured campuses with her father. “The minute I saw ‘Wellesley College, motor entrance next left,’ and then we got onto campus, and I saw the birch trees around Paramecium Pond, I thought, this is the place,” she says. Cantopher was devastated when she was put on the College’s wait list. But she waited. When she was admitted, she quickly canceled earlier plans to go to Bryn Mawr. Decades later, while serving on the board of the WCAA, she ran into Mary Ellen Crawford Ames ’40, former director of admission at Wellesley. “She said, ‘See? We don’t make mistakes,’” Cantopher remembers, laughing.
She lived in Pomeroy Hall all four years. “I loved Pom from the second my big sister came running down the steps in purple, head to toe, when she saw my name tag and realized I was her little sister,” she says. Cantopher went on to become house president. “[Wellesley] is a unique place, and it isn’t for everybody, but it was definitely for me. It was powerful that all the leadership positions were held by women. I never thought there was anything I couldn’t do,” she says.
After Wellesley, Cantopher earned an M.B.A. from Harvard and pursued a career in publishing and as a consultant in higher education philanthropy, which took her around the United States and to London. Now retired in South Carolina, she serves as a trustee at the Charleston Library Society and on the board of the Gibbes Museum of Art. Since she graduated, wherever she’s been in the world, she’s volunteered for Wellesley—and she also enjoys having niece Emily Wood ’13 as a fellow alum. Cantopher has been class president, reunion co-chair, special gifts chair, and Wellesley Fund rep several times. She also served on the WCAA board and as interim executive director in 2005, and she chaired the search committee that hired Kathryn Harvey Mackintosh ’03 as executive director in 2019.
“My opportunities to be a Wellesley volunteer have been a sustenance through my whole life,” Cantopher says. “It’s been part of the scaffold that has held me up during times of transition. … The fact that there was always this connection through volunteering to Wellesley meant, somehow, everything was going to be OK.”
Cantopher says that one of the strengths of the WCAA is that “there’s always a place for you in the Alumnae Association. It’s a forever membership.” The ability to give, either as a volunteer or financially, changes over the course of an alum’s life, and the WCAA encourages alumnae to participate in the ways that make sense for them during each season of their life. One of the challenges the WCAA faces is creating relevant ways to connect with a group of alums that spans 80-plus years. “We make a mistake when we make assumptions about what people want because they’re from a certain decade,” Cantopher says. Another thing she’ll be asking as president is, broadly, who is not participating. “Who’s missing and why? That’s what I want to know. Answering that question should help with the challenges associated with reaching diverse populations,” she says.
As she assumes the role of president, Cantopher thanks outgoing president Martha Goldberg Aronson ’89 for her leadership and comments on how grateful she is for the role Mackintosh played in steering the Alumnae Association through the pandemic. “It feels like every single thing is three times the work right now, and yet [Mackintosh] still has the capacity to love Wellesley, love us all, and also think about the future. I feel really grateful to have the chance to work in partnership with her and the staff,” Cantopher says.