Former Registrar’s Legacy Endures as Community Rallies around Students in Need

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Helen Wilkinson

Though Albany Law School’s Give Day looked a little different this year, the community’s generosity had an even bigger impact.  

As the world faces a global pandemic of the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, the law school’s operations—including fundraising—have turned virtual. And bracing for the unexpected is now part of daily life for many.

This year, Albany Law School focused its fundraising efforts on the Helen Wilkinson Memorial Student Assistance Fund. More than 225 donors gave $77,000, with $21,000 (and counting) specifically earmarked for the Wilkinson Fund.

Established in 2017, the fund honors Albany Law School’s longtime registrar, Helen Wilkinson, who was known to offer support—both financial and emotional—to students during some of their toughest and most unpredictable times. Like Wilkinson, the fund in her name provides financial assistance to students who have urgent and unexpected needs.

A Memorable Loan

For J.K. Hage III ’78, Wilkinson’s generosity helped him bridge the gap between finishing law school and being there for his ailing mother.

While he was in Albany dealing with finals, bar exam preparation, and graduation, Hage’s mother was in a medical facility near Washington, D.C., being treated for terminal pancreatic cancer. Wilkinson gave Hage a $2,500 loan to cover travel expenses so he could visit his mother.

“I never forgot what Helen and the law school did for me,” Hage said.

He paid it back over a few years—and she never charged any interest. “You just had to repay what she gave you, that’s the kind of person that she was,” Hage said.

Wilkinson was often recalled as the “shadow dean” for her knack of offering support in tough times and serving as a go-to person for information.

“If you wanted something or needed something, you asked Helen,” Hage said. “She was a tremendously sincere and generous person.”

Always Looking Out

For Bill Pulos ’80, Wilkinson lives in his memory as a “velvet hammer.”

“She was a fixture in the 1928 Building. She arrived early, worked late, never said much. She was not one for small talk—she was all business,” he said.

But beneath her outward austerity lived her generosity, Pulos recalled.

He arrived to law school hat-in-hand and worked on the overnight campus cleaning crew to make extra money. Back then, students were notified of urgent matters through a bulletin board near the cafeteria. One day, a fellow rugby player alerted Pulos that he was the recipient of the Van Horne scholarship—which he had not applied for—and he was to go see Ms. Wilkinson.

“She handed me an envelope. She didn’t explain,” Pulos said. “I don’t even think she looked up at me as her cigarette was burning—she was typing away on her manual typewriter.”

The envelope contained $500—when tuition was $2,500—and after some investigation, he found out Wilkinson, along with Professor William Watkins, worked behind the scenes for Pulos to receive the scholarship.

“It was a godsend,” he said. “I cannot say enough good about her.”

Paying It Forward

Today, the Wilkinson Fund serves as a resource for students who are experiencing difficult financial situations due to health concerns or other emergencies. The funds can offer a helping hand during a tough situation and ease the burden of paying for things like bar preparation courses or living expenses. 

The Class of 1978 established the fund to honor the countless times Wilkinson reached into her own pockets to help a student. The Wilkinson Fund is again top-of-mind due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with it, the varied, emergent needs of some Albany Law students.

“Helen was the personification of the concept of Albany Law School’s tight-knit, family-oriented community. Helen was the embodiment of that,” Hage said. “Dean [Alicia] Ouellette and the current board have the exact same attitude.”

The law school continues to accept donations toward the Helen Wilkinson Memorial Student Assistance Fund. All gifts made on or after Give Day also count toward We Rise Together: The Campaign for Albany Law School.

“Now more than ever, fundraising efforts play a crucial role in a student’s law school experience,” said Dean Ouellette. “The Albany Law School community comes together in good times and bad. As we navigate these unprecedented and unpredictable times, our motto of We Rise Together guides us even more.”