Lilyan Affinito leaves a legacy for women in leadership

Lilyan Affinito ’53 with Cornell President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III.

Trustee emerita and Presidential Councillor Lilyan Affinito ’53, a staunch advocate for including women in leadership roles at Cornell and excellence in the professional realm, has died at the age of 86.

A longtime resident of New York City, Affinito died June 29 near her birthplace in the Pittsburgh area.

Affinito leaves a legacy for women in leadership. She earned a bachelor's degree in hotel management from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She began working at Price Waterhouse & Co. in Pittsburgh, later transferring to the company’s New York City office. Through hard work and persistence in a work environment where women rarely reached senior leadership positions, she joined Simplicity Pattern Co. as an executive in 1968, becoming president and treasurer in 1976. After the company was acquired in 1982, she served as president and chief operating officer at Maxxam Group until 1987 and as vice chairman from 1987 to 1991.

Affinito was appointed to many corporate boards, including Chrysler, Caterpillar, Lilian Vernon, Mayo Foundation and Tambrands. She applied her professional experience and skill to volunteer leadership at Cornell, serving as a member of the Cornell University Board of Trustees from 1981 to 1994, chairing national fundraising campaigns and volunteering for the Class of 1953. She was named a presidential councillor and trustee emerita in 1994.

One of only a few women on the board of trustees in the 1980s, she worked with fellow trustee Patricia Carry Stewart ’50 to start the President’s Council of Cornell Women (PCCW), which was founded by President Frank H.T. Rhodes in 1990.

“Lilyan was dedicated to creating opportunities for the next generation of women leaders at Cornell, particularly by establishing the President’s Council of Cornell Women,” said Rhodes. “I deeply appreciated the insights and integrity she provided as a member of the board of trustees and as a volunteer.”

Stewart, who met Affinito volunteering at the Cornell Women’s Club in New York City – at a time when the Cornell Club was only for men – said she and Affinito felt that women needed a voice at Cornell.

“Lilyan was very active. She was innovative,” said Stewart. “She knew how to operate in an organization, and she did it with great skill and tact. We worked hard together to put women in places of responsibility at Cornell.”

PCCW continues to thrive and grow, preparing Cornell women for leadership and advocating for women’s interests at the university. PCCW offers professional development, volunteer opportunities, mentoring, philanthropic projects and an annual symposium to advance the involvement and leadership of Cornell women faculty, staff, students and alumnae. Heidi Grenek ’92, PCCW chair, said all those groups have felt the impact of PCCW since Affinito and Stewart started the organization.

“She was a trailblazer, both in her professional life and in her service to Cornell,” said Grenek. “She and Pat Stewart saw an issue with representation on campus. Rather than accepting that as just how life is, they took action. That willingness to see a problem and tackle it has inspired PCCW for the past 28 years.”

Cornell women continue to give back to other women through PCCW, said Grenek. Record-breaking fundraising in the past year allowed the organization to fully fund all requests they received for leadership grants, micro-grants for student projects and for Affinito-Stewart grants, which award seed funding for women faculty.

Affinito founded the Lilyan H. Affinito Scholarship Fund at Cornell and she was active in the Cornell Catholic community. She also gave her talents as a volunteer to Cornell’s development efforts. From 1990 to 1992, she was national chair of the Tower Club and helped revitalize a recognition program and achieved record-breaking results. Then she served as co-chair, with Jack Neafsey ’61, MBA ‘63, of the regional campaign for “Creating the Future” from 1993 to 1995.

“Lilyan helped to shape our plans, encouraged a bold vision and gave us the confidence that we could exceed our goals,” said Jeff McCarthy, associate vice president for principal gifts.

Valerie Kuramoto, MPS ’90, a development officer with Cornell Alumni Affairs and Development, remembers Affinito as an “amazing volunteer,” generous with her time, expertise and resources, and passionate about giving women opportunities to attain and excel in leadership roles.

“She cared about students, and she cared about giving women opportunities to build strong futures,” said Kuramoto. “She cared deeply about Cornell.”

Kate Klein is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

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