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Watertown philanthropist remembered as force behind community causes

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She weighed no more than 100 pounds, stood 5 feet, 5 inches tall, and was described by family and friends as gentle and soft-spoken. Yet at the same time, Mary H. Macsherry was a commanding force who spent her life contributing to causes that made the north country a better place.

Those who attend her funeral service today at Trinity Episcopal Church, 227 Sherman St., will share memories of the joy brought to their lives by Mrs. Macsherry, who died Monday at the age of 94 at her home on Harris Drive.

“She was only 100 pounds, but she was a powerhouse who had energy and spirit,” her son, Stewart S. Macsherry, told the Times on Wednesday during a family gathering at the Macsherry house. “She commanded respect, but she always carried herself in a ladylike and dignified manner.”

She and her husband, Richard R., were married for 64 years. The philanthropists spent those years giving back to causes in Watertown and their summer home, Alexandria Bay. They provided funding, for example, in 1997 to build the Macsherry Library in Alexandria Bay. In 2010, they gave $1 million to establish an 11,000-square-foot addition, the Macsherry Parish Center, at Trinity Episcopal Church.

At the family gathering Wednesday, Mr. Macsherry announced that $1 million will be given to each of the following organizations in remembrance of his wife: Samaritan Medical Center, Hospice of Jefferson County, Trinity Episcopal Church and River Hospital, Alexandria Bay. The couple supported those organizations — and many more — for many years with endowment funds through the Northern New York Community Foundation.

Mr. Macsherry said donations were never made, however, until the couple talked them over and agreed the causes were worthwhile.

“We always had to agree on everything,” he said while seated in an armchair by his daughter, Molly M. Macsherry MacWade, who has served as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Mississippi for the past 33 years. “But we didn’t like the publicity; we got our own satisfaction by doing the things we did.”

Family members said Mrs. Macsherry was an avid golfer at Ives Hill Country Club and particularly enjoyed riding on power boats on the St. Lawrence River. Mr. Macsherry’s voice moved with emotion when he compared his only daughter to his wife.

“They look a lot alike and have the same outlook on life,” said Mr. Macsherry, who for 30 years owned Seaway Motor Express, a trucking company in Watertown. Tears formed in his eyes as he paused midsentence. “Everyone here has been great, but it feels awful to lose my wife.”

The Macsherrys formed a partnership with the Northern New York Community Foundation in 1979 by establishing a fund to give back to community causes.

Foundation Executive Director Rande S. Richardson said the Macsherrys have an array of endowment funds established for various organizations. That list has included the Jefferson Community College Foundation, United Way of Northern New York, Samaritan Medical Center, Hospice of Jefferson County, Trinity Episcopal Church, Macsherry Library, River Hospital, Clayton Opera House, the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton and the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, which is now Symphony Syracuse.

Mr. Richardson met the Macsherrys in 2005, when he served as the executive director for the Jefferson Community College Foundation. He said he was impressed by how Mrs. Macsherry went out of her way to talk to college students who were nominated for Macsherry scholarships.

“They never missed an awards ceremony in the fall,” Mr. Richardson said. “They had their picture taken with students and talked with them about their plans. I think they felt that actions speak louder than words. Their giving was motivated by inspiring others to do the same.”

One of the Macsherrys’ beloved causes was the United Way of Northern New York. Jayn M. Graves, United Way chief professional officer, said she knew Mrs. Macsherry as a generous donor to United Way and as a fellow parishioner at Trinity Episcopal Church. She described Mrs. Macsherry as a “charming woman without a mean or cross bone in her body.”

The two friends both enjoyed watching the Kentucky Derby, too. At a church dinner organized on the evening of the Kentucky Derby a few years ago, Miss Graves was entering the church at the same time as Mrs. Macsherry. Miss Graves vividly remembers the exchange of words they had in the parking lot.

“She said, ‘Well, we’re not going to miss the Kentucky Derby or a church event now!’” Miss Graves said.

She said the Macsherrys were always private about gifts they made. “In addition to all of the known acts we can recount, I think we’ll never know how much they gave because I know they made many anonymously to people in need,” Miss Graves said.

The couple’s donation to establish the Macsherry Parish Center in 2010 was lauded by the Very Rev. Clarke French, who was the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church from 2005 to 2010, when he moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., to serve at the Church of the Holy Family.

The Rev. Mr. French said the Macsherrys sincerely believed they had an obligation to give back according to their means and viewed giving to their community as a long-term partnership, not a one-time offer.

“Mary was so deeply interested in this project,” the Rev. Mr. French recalled of the parish center. “I would give updates as to how things were going, and Mary always asked questions — she had a deep wisdom and an immense capability for getting at the meat of the matter. She wasn’t a patron of lost causes, because she supported ones after seeing the power of them work.”

Robert F. Caswell, 81, has known the Macsherrys most of his life as a member of Trinity Episcopal Church. He recalled visiting Mrs. Macsherry on Sunday — a day before her death — at her house.

“When I came in, Mary was just delighted to see me — we were friends for a long time,” he said, and recalled the way she lit up with joy when he arrived. “And I get the same treatment from her daughter. She wrapped her arms around me and gave me a hug when I left.”

The Rev. Mrs. Macsherry MacWade said she has always emulated her mother as a philanthropist.

“My whole life, I learned giving back was important, and it never occurred to me to do it any other way. That’s the way my parents taught me to live.”

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