Staff Q&A: Jean-Marie Kneeley

Jean-Marie Kneeley

Photo credit: Mark Stehle

As vice dean of external affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences, Jean-Marie Kneeley raises money for a living. This fall, her fundraising skills were tapped for a cause that’s even closer to her heart than Penn. On Oct. 8 she completed the Breast Cancer 3-Day, a 60-mile walk in and around Philadelphia. Out of 3,400 walkers who registered for the three-day event, she was the top fundraiser. As of press time she had raised $24,080 for breast cancer research and awareness, with several recent and generous donations from SAS’s own Board of Overseers. We sat down with Kneeley to talk about what motivated her, how she geared up for this grueling workout and why she calls it “one of the most remarkable experiences” of her life.

Q. What inspired you to do the walk?
A. My 50th birthday was the main motivating factor. I thought, “What can I do to celebrate turning 50?” It became this because breast cancer is something that is near and dear to me personally—I’m in a high-risk group and I’ve had two biopsies. Also because I know four young women in their 30s all of whom were diagnosed with breast cancer, two worked for me, one was married to a man who worked for me and one was my sister. I dedicated the walk to the four of them.

Q. What did your training for the 3-Day involve?
A. It involved walking. It’s all I did for 24 weeks. Every weekend my husband and I would walk. I think when we first started we were walking maybe three miles and as the summer progressed we were doing 15 miles on a Saturday, 18 miles on a Sunday. It takes a lot of time to walk that far so it was a major commitment.

Q. As a professional fundraiser, what was it like to ask people for money for something more personal?
A. This was totally different. I feel very passionate about the University and the needs of the School but it isn’t personal, it’s not about me and I’m not asking people to give me money. I have to say this was the most rewarding fundraising I’ve ever done. I had amazing support from the Penn community, from faculty, from colleagues in this office … and from people I’ve never met but who are connected to me in some way, including a medical technician in Florida. My father is being treated for colon cancer there and she was part of his medical team. During one of his treatments he told her what I was doing and the next thing I knew I got an email from her and she made a gift in honor of my father and her father who died from cancer.

Q. So how was the walk?
A. We started at the Willow Grove Mall at about 6 a.m. on Friday October 6. It was pitch black and pouring rain. We walked through Jenkintown and Abington and we wound up coming down Germantown Avenue through Chestnut Hill and people lined the streets. Shopkeepers came out and offered us pretzels and cookies and coffee and people fed us everywhere we went and they were just clapping and honking. We didn’t even notice the rain. Then we came down through Wissahickon Park … and then we wound up on Main Street Manayunk where again they were lining the streets and feeding us … so that was a high point and immediately following was the low point. We had to walk up this hill in Belmont and it was close to the end of the day and everybody was tired … and we wound our way to Belmont Plateau and when we got there we were told it was too wet to camp and we were going to be bussed to University City High School. We didn’t sleep very well and we were up about 4:30 and bussed back to Belmont Plateau. There we were fed and the sun came up and we were off walking again.

Q. Tell me about the last day.
A. The last day was easy because it was only 16 and a half miles and it was sunny. We walked through all these towns on the Main Line I pass through every day on the train. When we hit Bryn Mawr there were little kids, old people, parents, husbands, wives, everybody out there with signs and candy and food and high fives. So we were really going on an adrenaline rush. You almost felt like your feet weren’t touching the ground. I never smiled so hard and so long for three straight days. I finished in pretty good physical condition, I just had two bad blisters, but there were people coming in on crutches, with ice taped to their knees and ankles, bandaged from knee to ankle. There was so much determination and grit.

Q. Will you do it again next year?
A. No. When I went into it I saw it as a once in a lifetime thing. I was doing it to make a milestone in my life and for a very particular purpose. There’s only one condition under which I would do it again and that’s if I ever did get breast cancer and survived. But next year I will be out on the street cheering those walkers on because I know how important that was to us, and anybody I know who wants to do it I will support them financially. It’s someone else’s turn now.

For more on the Breast Cancer 3-Day, go to www.the3day.org.

Originally published November 2, 2006.

Originally published on November 2, 2006