Down-to-earth leadership

Nancy Pearlstine Conger ’67, who majored in history at Wheaton, never needs to look too far to be inspired by what is near and dear to her heart.

Her Rockaway Township, N.J., home rests on the crystalline shores of Green Pond, dug out by glacial activity more than 11,000 years ago. Nearby, legally protected wetlands lay in the shadow of Copperas Mountain, which on a clear day affords hikers views of the Manhattan skyline some 35 miles away. And within her home are plenty of reminders of her alma mater.

It is the perfect setting for the longtime conservationist and Wheaton loyalist, especially now as she steps into her new position leading the college into its next chapter as the newly elected chair of the Board of Trustees.

The role underscores her desire to protect the past, improve the present and plan for the future—a common thread that unites all the varied aspects of her life.

Those who know Conger say she’s a perfect choice to chair Wheaton’s board. She was unanimously elected to the post in February (and officially began July 1), after having served as vice chair alongside chair Tom Hollister for the past five years.

“Nancy is personable, down-to-earth, approachable and easy to connect with,” says Hollister, chief financial officer and vice president for finance at Harvard. “They’re great strengths, but are among many wonderful qualities, including her sense of humor, moral compass and decisiveness as a leader.”

The Wheaton Board of Trustees supports the president and the administration while engaging in meaningful discussions about the strategic issues facing the college. As the new chair, Conger brings an abiding desire to preserve the college’s commitment to academic excellence.

“I want to preserve the tradition of timely innovation and timeless values,” says Conger, reflecting on the institution’s residential ethos and commitment to close student-professor relationships. “I hope to continue that tradition while always looking forward. Wheaton College exists for the students, and we want their involvement to be as fulfilling as possible. It’s about students having stimulating experiences in their curricular and co-curricular life.”

During her own student days, Conger initially wasn’t sure what she wanted to major in, but decided on history partly because it answered two of life’s biggest questions: “I was trying to understand who I was and where I fit in on the continuum, and history pretty pragmatically answers that.”

The answers she found at Wheaton would shape a career in finance and a stewardship of the planet, and bring her back full circle to the place where it all started.

As the daughter of an attorney father and a mother who was a founding member of Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County Community College, Conger envisioned higher education as a certainty.

“The real question was, where did I want to pursue it?” she says. “In the end, it was between the University of Pennsylvania and Wheaton College. I wanted a residential college and, in all honesty, I wanted to get out of town. In those days, the best schools were in New England. It was the best decision I ever made.”

Wheaton’s small classes allowed her to forge close relationships with professors, especially with Paul Helmreich, professor of history emeritus, whose senior seminar on totalitarianism “brought history to the present day.”

Conger still nurtured an interest in biology, despite being intimidated by the sciences. In fact, a Bio 101 course helped conquer her fears and set her on a journey to preserve open spaces for future generations.

Students in Bio 101 were assigned a plot in the Wheaton Woods to observe natural processes at work. “It was nice to lie down and look at the flowers or the weeds or whatever was growing, and see the impact of rain water,” recalls Conger, who has been involved with environmental causes for two decades. “I cannot say that I was quite so aware of pollution, especially in the Wheaton Woods, but it gave me an appreciation of untouched land that must be preserved.”

Conger now serves on the board of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, a role that was influenced by those days in Norton. She also has served as a board member of the Great Swamp Watershed Association and the Green Pond Environmental Foundation.

“Living in the most densely populated state in the nation, we need to preserve the air that we breathe and the water that we drink,” says Conger, who routinely hikes and boats in the area with her husband, Bill.

In addition to inspiring an appreciation for nature, Conger’s experiences at Wheaton also led to what at first seemed like an unlikely career choice for a history major: finance. It has become her life’s work, informed by family conversations around the dinner table when she was young, and by her liberal arts experience.

“I didn’t have many classes in finance, but what matters is that the skills that I learned at Wheaton gave me the confidence to express myself well and become a stockbroker at 21,” Conger says. “I had the skill set to succeed.”

Immediately after graduation, she was a securities salesperson for the L.F. Rothschild investment banking firm on Wall Street. Conger went on to work for two years as a reporter/researcher for Forbes magazine. Afterward, while raising three children, she was president of Ezray Investment Advisors and became a certified financial planner, before she and Bill in 2008 founded Red Hook Management in Morristown, N.J. The firm provides investment advice to individuals, trusts and foundations.

Conger has always credited Wheaton with being a critical influence on her career progression. But it wasn’t until her 25th class Reunion that she more fully realized the college’s impact, not only on her own generation but also on succeeding generations of Wheaties.

The 1992 Reunion came four years after Wheaton became a coeducational college. Despite the change, all of the same hallmarks were evident, Conger recalls.

“It still had the same culture, the same quality students, and there was camaraderie among the students,” she says. “Wheaton hadn’t changed, and I wanted to be involved.”

From 1997 until 2002, she served on the president’s commission under then president Dale Marshall, who had just shepherded a $90 million campaign that created 70 new scholarship funds and 12 endowed faculty chairs, and launched several campus construction projects.

“I was so thrilled and excited,” says Conger. “I was a Dale groupie. I credit her with lighting the fire.”

It was just the start of Conger’s leadership roles at Wheaton. She joined the 30-member Board of Trustees in 2002, serving on the governance committee and the investment committee before chairing the 15-member presidential search committee—made up of faculty, administrators, staff, trustees and students. In February 2014, the board selected Dennis M. Hanno as Wheaton’s eighth president.

Heading the search committee was a job that suited Conger well. Polly Bartlett Bryson ’79, the committee’s vice chair, a trustee, and a partner at a commercial real estate firm in Cambridge, says Conger “thrives on making meaningful connections throughout the Wheaton community.”

“She really seeks different perspectives to come to the best solution,” Bryson adds. “She is so easy to connect with, and she spends the time to really get to know Wheaton’s students, parents, faculty, staff and alums.”

For Conger, it comes naturally. “My involvement with the college is because I think it’s such a spectacular institution,” she says. “The only way to ensure that future and current students have the experience that I and thousands of men and women have had is to be involved and support it in every way. I want them to look back and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe what a great place Wheaton was.’”

Photo by Pete Byron