Rochester philanthropist and activist Betty Strasenburgh has died at the age of 90.
Strasenburgh was a philanthropist, harpist, sailor, pilot, adventurer, but most of all, she was a community advocate who, among other efforts, helped lead a campaign to renovate the Eastman Theatre.
Strasenburgh was born in New York City, where she lived through high school. She played the harp and was accepted to the Eastman School of Music, which brought her to Rochester.
Strasenburgh taught harp at Nazareth Academy after she graduated from Eastman in 1952, and she remained close to the Eastman School throughout her life, later moving to Grove Street where she could see the theater from her dining room window.
Strasenburgh and her late husband, Robert, president of Strasenburgh Laboratories and son of the local Strasenburgh Planetarium donors, made their home in Pittsford. She played an active role on the boards of East End-based cultural groups such as the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Garth Fagan Dance.
Strasenburgh moved to the East End in 1997, and was actively involved with the renovation of Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, part of a $46.9 million project that also included a new building for teaching, rehearsal, and performing spaces.
It was her neighbor and friend on Grove Street, architect Bob Macon, who got her involved in the renovations. He was ill from cancer and his wife entrusted the plans for renovation with Strasenburgh to complete his vision. She also helped raise the money to make Macon’s vision of hanging a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the new atrium a reality.
On the WXXI program Norm & Company in 2017, Strasenburgh remembered that the effort to bring the Eastman Theatre project forward was not an easy process.
“It took about 10 years because there were all sorts of ideas of how the cultural center should be and how the performing arts center should be; there were so many different people that had their own ideas,” Strasenburgh told WXXI President Norm Silverstein.
Besides her involvement in the arts, Strasenburgh was dedicated to helping advance women’s leadership opportunities in Rochester. She realized that having control over her finances gave her more choices in life, and worked at the investment firm of Howe & Rustling to bring in prospective clients.
Strasenburgh began to realize how few women handled money and understood finances, so she became a founding member of the Women’s Fund and Rochester Women’s Network.
She realized that few women served on corporate boards, and during her appearance on Norm & Company, she described how she joined Catherine Carlson on a visit to the CEO of Bausch & Lomb to push for representation on the company’s board.
“I went with my friend Catherine to see Dan Gill, at Bausch & Lomb, and we went up to see Dan Gill because we knew him, and told him what we were doing, and sure enough, he put a woman on the board, so we were very pleased,” she explained.
Strasenburgh's life was not all work, it involved a lot of fun and adventuring as well. She got into sailing as an activity she and her first husband could do together. She crewed for a local accomplished female sailor, Helen Ingerson, who won the top prize for women’s sailing when Strasenburgh was on her crew in the 1960s. When she married Robert Strasenburgh, it began a 25-year adventure of cruising around the world. She visited all seven continents, including a trip to Antarctica.
Strasenburgh also became a licensed pilot, learning to fly on a four-seat Beechcraft Deonair plane. Her adventures included a crash with her flight instructor on board. They clipped treetops and flipped into a farm field in Sparta, Livingston County, but they were able to walk away from the accident.
She also survived a boat fire on the Hudson River, as well as breast cancer.
Strasenburgh was deeply devoted to supporting the arts, including the Gateways Music Festival, which encourages African American musicians to perform classical music. The festival is now affiliated with the Eastman School of Music.
Lee Koonce, president & artistic director for the Gateways Music Festival, said that over the years, Betty Strasenburgh had a lifelong devotion to “issues related to racial justice, issues related to diversity.” Koonce said that over the years, Strasenburgh continued her support of the Gateways Festival and “has been a champion of our work.” Koonce said her passing is a “great loss for Gateways and a great loss for Rochester.”
Garth Fagan, founder of Garth Fagan Dance, said Strasenburgh "was a wonderful supporter of Garth Fagan Dance through the years, a great supporter of the arts in Rochester and she really put herself out for the organizations that needed some real help…Rochester will miss her.”
Strasenburgh was also a longtime supporter of WXXI and The Little Theatre. In 2019, Strasenburgh was honored by WXXI with the President’s Award, which honors an individual who exemplifies the spirit of collaboration toward the WXXI mission, makes a contribution to WXXI programming, and demonstrates exceptional commitment, creativity, and leadership. She has been a strong advocate for public media in Rochester and its mission to serve the community.
Because of her long-time generous support, WXXI announced at that event that it would name the radio wing of the WXXI building "The Betty Strasenburgh Studios."
WXXI President Norm Silverstein, said there are other people in Rochester involved in philanthropic efforts, but Betty Strasenburgh was truly one of a kind.
"We know many people who are supporters of our classical station, our news station, the Little Theatre and there are definitely people out there who care about the community and they are philanthropists, but I think it is fair to say, with the passing of Betty, it is the passing of an era," Silverstein said.
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren issued a statement, calling Betty Strasenburgh "a true gem in Rochester." Warren said Strasenburgh "was always willing to lend a hand to lift up our community and our residents. I am personally grateful to her as well, since without Betty’s help, I would not have been able to attend law school. However, my story is not unique. There are countless other Rochesterians who have, and continue to benefit from Betty’s generosity."
Warren added, "Ms. Strasenburgh was also a great friend of the late Assemblyman David Gantt. I know that today, they are smiling down together on our community and all of their good work. While Betty will forever be missed, her life and accomplishments will always be remembered throughout Rochester."
Betty Strasenburgh appeared on the WXXI-TV program Norm & Company, on June 30, 2017: