Throughout a fascinating career that spans the arts, higher education and fundraising, Dr. Robert Hesse has served as, and continues to remain, a sterling illustration of SUNY Fredonia’s “Where Success is a Tradition” motto.
The 1953 Music Education graduate has held leadership positions with organizations of varying sizes and missions; some have had a regional focus, while others have had a national or even international scope. Many were in transition when placed under Dr. Hesse’s charge. A few faced severe challenges that threatened their long-term viability.
In the mid 1980s when Hesse was appointed Executive Director of the Joffrey Ballet, the Chicago dance company was developing plans to go bi-coastal, with homes and seasons in Los Angeles and New York City. However, it was also nearly bankrupt. By applying his extensive arts management skills, he turned the organization around by combining tight budget measures with intense fundraising, while adding new repertoire, improving promotion and expanding audiences.
Fewer than 175 students were enrolled at Medaille College in 1974 when Hesse became its first lay President. His strategy of adding programs, changing the campus culture and energizing the faculty produced a student population of over 1,000 at the Buffalo school in three short years.
That remarkable turnaround attracted the attention of the Chautauqua Institution, which was in a period of decline in 1977 when Hesse became its new President. Recruited as an agent of change, Hesse directed a team effort to reinvigorate the venerable arts community over six years by improving programming, increasing attendance and rebuilding facilities.
Early in his career, Hesse held several positions with duties that included press relations, alumni affairs and fundraising at SUNY Fredonia. That was in the 1960s, a time of unprecedented campus expansion. Successive promotions led him to become Executive Assistant to President Oscar Lanford, a mentor who nurtured the young administrator’s ambition. Among Hesse’s accomplishments, he launched the Annual Fund, Fredonia’s first fundraising campaign. That legacy continues today, as total Annual Fund donations exceeded $400,000 in 2011.
Hesse learned to play the violin as a child and became concertmaster of his high school orchestra. After enrolling at Fredonia in 1949, he played with the Erie (Pa.) Philharmonic, where he sat next to Dr. Harry King, then Associate Director of the college’s music department – and for whom King Concert Hall is named. His administrative career began under the direction of Francis Diers – the namesake for Diers Recital Hall.
“The College at Fredonia changed my life. I would not have done what I did, become what I am, or enjoyed a modicum of success if it wasn’t for the education given to me by Fredonia,” Hesse said. He established the Dr. Robert Hesse Violin Scholarship Endowment Fund on campus through the Fredonia College Foundation to benefit full-time music students.
Hesse has also served as Chief Development and Public Relations Officer of the United States Committee for UNICEF, and Director of Communications Services for the American College Public Relations Association. He also founded Robert Hesse Associates, a consultancy that provides strategic planning, marketing, special events and public relations services, and advises capital and enrollment campaigns.
Four years ago, Hesse, together with his life partner, Jane Fortune, and son, Kevin, founded the Indianapolis City Ballet (ICB), which they envisioned as a ballet center of national and international stature. As voluntary chairman, Hesse is pleased to see that dream come to life.
Each year the ICB stages, “Evening With The Stars,” a benefit that brings many of the world’s most talented dancers to Indianapolis. Among those in 2012’s audience were SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath and Associate Director of Development June Miller-Spann, both guests of Hesse and Fortune. “We are shaped in life by situations, events, experiences and people,” Hesse attests. “Fredonia played a role in shaping my persona through all of these conditions.”