GENEVA — In 1953, Mary Luckern came to Geneva for what she hoped would be a one-year teaching job in the city school district.
Little did she know it would be the start of a 44-year career that would see her touch thousands of lives as a teacher and administrator.
“In many ways, she stands as Geneva’s educator of all times,” said her close friend Chris Lavin, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva. “She had a hand in four generations of Geneva families whose children made their way through the schools she ran.”
Luckern, who retired in 1997 and then turned her attention to local politics — she served as Geneva town supervisor for 16 years — passed away Sunday at the age of 87.
In addition to her decades of service to the school district and town, Luckern served on numerous community boards that included the Boys & Girls Club, Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes and her alma mater, SUNY Geneseo.
“She was a longtime board member, right up to the end,” said Ellen Wayne, executive director of Catholic Charities. “Not only was she a strong supporter of the work we do, she was always holding us accountable for that work. She never missed an opportunity to line a constituent up with us and following through on it.
“Just in the last week, she had a caregiver whose family was in need of our services and asked how we can help this person. She was all about making the community a better place to live.”
A Seneca Falls native, Luckern graduated from Geneseo in 1953 and did her student teaching in Geneva. The district offered her a job right out of college; although Luckern only expected it to be for a year, the district helped her earn a master’s degree to keep her here.
She taught at the old Prospect Avenue School, which is now home to the Sons of Italy, and West Street School. She was head teacher at the old High Street School in 1967 before becoming principal at North Street School the following year. She held that position for 28 years.
Luckern was named to the National Distinguished Principals program in 1988.
While she may have had the look of a grandmother late in her career, she ran schools with a strong hand and never shied away from making tough calls when dealing with failing students, families, and teachers.
“Every person I met who knew Mary, whether it was a former teacher or former student, had the utmost respect for her and said she was one of the kindest people they ever met,” said Trina Newton, superintendent of the city school district. “However, they all had a healthy respect for her because she could be tough. She was a gifted educator.”
Newton said on her first day on the job, in 2012, she was greeted with a gift from Luckern.
“She sent me a beautiful plant with live flowers. I am looking at it right now,” Newton said in a phone call Monday. “To walk into an office as the new superintendent in an area I wasn’t familiar with, and get a beautiful gift with a note welcoming me to the Geneva City School District and Geneva ... well, it was special. Mary said if I needed anything, she was there for me.”
It was the start of a close relationship.
“I was very fortunate to spend time with her,” Newton added. “Every time I met with her, whether it was formal or informal, she gave me bits of history on the Geneva City School District. From the minute I walked in the door, Mary was a resource for me. I consider her a great friend.”
After she retired, Luckern, a lifelong Democrat, took on the entrenched Republican leadership in the town of Geneva. She defeated longtime Supervisor Art Rundell by a narrow margin, starting a 16-year run.
“We ran together in the ’90s, me as judge and Mary as supervisor. We were the first Democrats to win in the town in a long time,” said Mark Venuti, who succeeded Luckern as supervisor. “Mary was principal at North Street School when my kids went there, so we’ve probably been connected for about 25 years. She was a great administrator and town supervisor. She was a hard worker, cared about the community, and cared about kids and people. That was her life.”
As town supervisor, Luckern also served on the Ontario County Board of Supervisors. With the same straightforward approach that served her as a teacher and school administrator, she wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion on county matters.
“I think what I’ll remember about Mary on the Board of Supervisors was that despite her maternal appearance, she was very tough-minded and consistent on the issues that mattered to her, including her opposition to the landfill, on government spending, and researching issues,” said Charlie Evangelista, former Geneva city supervisor. “I was proud to have served with her.”
“I will always remember Supervisor Mary Luckern as a kind, passionate individual who always cared for the youth and families in the city and town of Geneva,” added Jack Marren, chairman of the county board. “If I had to describe Mary Luckern in one word, it would be the word ‘Lady.’ She always carried herself as the consummate professional. Mary left her mark in this county, and for that we are forever grateful.”
While she served on many community boards, Catholic Charities, the Boys & Girls Club and SUNY Geneseo’s Board of Trustees were near and dear to her. Last fall, the Boys & Girls Club honored her at its annual dinner.
“I am so glad she was able to get that recognition before she passed away,” said Venuti, a former Boys & Girls Club board member. “The words ‘community service’ exemplify Mary Luckern.”
“She missed our last meeting due to her health, but I visited with her afterward and she asked what happened,” Wayne added. “She never gave up her attention to Catholic Charities and would call me if she couldn’t physically be here. We were never too far from her mind.
“It’s a big loss and many in the community will feel it.”
“Along with the entire SUNY Geneseo community, I am deeply saddened to hear of Mary Luckern’s passing,” college President Denise Battles said. “A member of the Class of 1953, Mary was a passionate and committed member of the SUNY Geneseo College Council who cared deeply about improving the education of New York students, at the K–12 through college levels. She was everything we hope Geneseo graduates will be — a socially responsible leader who made a tangible impact in her community and beyond. She will be missed.”
Luckern was named Geneva Citizen of the Year in 2013 and received a President’s Medal from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2017. Lavin said despite her age, Luckern insisted on attending former President Bill Clinton’s 2017 commencement address at HWS — she sat for hours in the rain.
Lavin, one of several community members who helped care for Luckern in her later years at her home on White Springs Road, said she displayed that same determination until the end.
“She was a fighter to the end in the last couple of days,” he said. “She was directing her care right up to the last morning — she was reluctant to give up the right. She never married, yet she had a rich family life of her own making friendships, often with other strong women, who like her, dedicated their lives to Geneva.
“Her room was filled the last 48 hours with friends from all over Geneva. They had to give us a special room for all the people so we could watch and comfort her to the end.”