In a remarkable 46-year career — an extension of a lifetime spent devoted to helping others — one of Frances Brisbane’s most pivotal moments at Stony Brook University in the newly created School of Social Welfare was a conversation with then custodian Elsie Owens ‘78 over a slop sink.
“The day that I came for my interview,” recalled Brisbane, who would eventually serve as Dean of the School of Social Welfare, “Elsie met me at the front door. She had a dustpan in one hand, and a broom or a mop or something in the other hand. She said, ‘You’re Frances Brisbane?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘Before you go down there to talk with them, I want you to come to my office. I want to tell you some things.’ So I went to her ‘office,’ which was a slop sink, and she told me who to watch out for, what to say and what not to say and so forth, and I followed her directive. I was so impressed with this woman, and I got the job.”
In time, Brisbane in turn would help Owens — a celebrated community activist whose interest in Brisbane’s interview was part of her longtime advocacy for black faculty and staff at the University — earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, making her one of many students Brisbane has helped in her 46 years at Stony Brook. Now, as she puts a bow on her own legacy at Stony Brook, Frances Brisbane is honoring Owens’ legacy as well. As part of a million-dollar planned gift to the University, Brisbane is establishing the Owens-Brisbane Wellbeing and Educational Advancement Endowment for Health Sciences Custodial Staff.
“She’d want me to do this for the custodial workers,” said Brisbane “If I had a single reason, it’s that.”
Brisbane’s new commitment — recently featured in Newsday (subscribers can read here) — follows donations totaling nearly $500,000, primarily through payroll deduction over decades. Her new million-dollar commitment – an uncommon, if not rare, gift to a university from a single black woman – brings her lifetime giving total to Stony Brook over $1.5 million.
“Frances Brisbane’s career at Stony Brook exemplifies what the University stands for,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. “From her 24 years as Dean of the School of Social Welfare to her continuing work as Vice President for Health Sciences Workforce Diversity and as Professor in the School of Social Welfare. We are all honored by the generosity of her planned gift.”
For her part, Brisbane has been proud to be able to support so much at Stony Brook – recipients of her donations range from Stony Brook Athletics to the School of Dental Medicine’s Community Outreach Fund to the Staller Center for the Arts — even if, for a long time, she wasn’t fully aware of the scope of her support.
“I think that when it comes out of your paycheck and you don’t see it, you don’t miss it,” Brisbane said. “When I looked at the statement and saw what I had donated, I said, ‘Where did that come from?’ I love giving, and I love being helpful, but if I had known I was giving that much, I would have said, ‘Can I afford this?’”
Clearly, in retrospect, the answer was, “Yes.” Brisbane’s donations comprise a philanthropic legacy worthy of accompanying her decorated academic record, which includes drug use prevention and recovery programs used across the United States and around the world; a unique academic conference, “Counseling and Treating People of Colour: An International Perspective,” now in its fourth decade; seven books, including volumes on substance abuse, culture competency, and working with people of African ancestry; and a U.S. President’s highest honor for Service and Civic Participation and the SUNY University President’s Award for Excellence in Diversity and Affirmative Action.
Now, her planned gift will serve to punctuate all that she’s managed to do along the way, using money that, in all honesty, she’s never missed.
“If I had all that money,” Brisbane said, “I wouldn’t be a bit better off than I am now. I’ve been able to do all this good and also take care of myself and my family. If I had all the money that I had amassed, my house wouldn’t be any better, my car wouldn’t be any better. I’m living just fine, and I’m helping others.”
And that help — through her philanthropy and her academic work — is the most fitting tribute of all to her impact.
“Although Frances has received many well-deserved accolades throughout her career,” Dr. Stanley said, “I can pay her no greater compliment than to point with gratitude to all the lives she has changed and is changing, and to the enduring mark that she continues to make not only on Stony Brook, but on the greater community as well.”
— Elliot Olshansky