BY MARK HOUSER
After almost two decades in the news business, Trish Hooper M’03 made a major career switch this year when she became CEO of Sewickley Valley YMCA. By then she’d gotten accustomed to major life changes: a slip on the ice last year shattered her kneecap, forcing her to switch from running–a lifelong passion–to cycling. And the year before that, she got married in a sunset ceremony on the Outer Banks. Hooper talked with Foundations about the surprises life sometimes holds and the lessons it offers.
When you and your husband (Julian Neiser, a small business attorney in West View) got married, you kept it a secret from both of your families, even from his young daughters. How did that come about?
We’d enjoyed for several years going down to the beach. We rent the same little house at milepost 11, right in the dunes, so we thought it would be a great place to get married. We also knew it would have been very difficult to get our families and friends down there. So the only witness was our dog, Amber. The dog walked me down to the beach. The person who married us was the same lady who made our cake. We actually were going to get married the day before, but it stormed, so we went bowling instead. I know that sounds like a joke, but it was one of the most special moments of my life.
Running a YMCA seems to be a good job for someone who loves to exercise. When did you start running?
When I was in grade school my brother was training for high school football, so I would just go and run with him. I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s a great stress reliever, and when you run with a group it’s a great social outing too. We’ve solved a lot of the world’s problems on our runs, and planned weddings, showers, and career changes. It’s amazing what you can accomplish during a run.
What is your most impressive athletic achievement?
My first marathon. I had the desire to do it, but I had no idea if I actually could; 26.2 miles is a long way to run. The most I had ever run was a 10K. You set your mind to it. You don’t know if you can do it, but you find a way.
So you wound up running in nine marathons. Is there a sport you aren’t good at, but wish you were?
Gymnastics. And I know I can’t do it because I did it for a semester in high school and ended up breaking my big toe. I was doing a roundoff double back handspring, and on the second back handspring I came back down on the tops of my toes.
What perspective did you gain from being second-youngest in a family of five children?
You get this whole wealth of experience growing up in a big family that translates into all different aspects of your life when you’re an adult, whether it’s how not to get in trouble, how to make up with someone you’ve been fighting with, how to make sure if you want mashed potatoes that you get the scoop first. I tell my stepdaughters whenever they fight: “One day you two are going to be friends, and something will happen in your life, and the first person you’re going to call is going to be your sister.” They don’t believe me now, and I understand why they don’t believe me, but it will happen. It always does.
What’s the best part about your job at the Sewickley YMCA?
Every day you have an opportunity to meet people who you’ve been able to make a difference in their lives. You talk with a family struggling to make ends meet, and they need child care so the parents can go to work. We’re able to provide that, and we’re able to provide financial assistance to make that happen. I’ve talked to more than a few people dealing with a sick relative at home. They come to the Y as a way to renew themselves. It’s their break; it’s their respite. To be able to be there for them makes all the difference in the world.
You majored in journalism at Kent State. Have things turned out in your career the way you thought they would?
No, but I think that’s what’s made it so exciting. I envisioned that I’d be writing for The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.
You spent 18 years in newspapers, working your way up from an intern at the Valley News Dispatch to city editor, then editor of special projects at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and eventually chief operating officer. What was your favorite part?
I liked the excitement about it. Every day was different. You could have a plan for the day, and a news event would happen and out the plan went. It really taught me how to think on my feet, and how to not get bogged down in adhering to a plan when the plan wasn’t relevant anymore.
Getting your M.B.A. appears to have changed your career trajectory in the direction of executive positions. What did it add to your existing set of skills?
I had a lot of different workplace experiences, and working though the M.B.A. coursework really allowed me to put a framework around that. To understand the dynamics of the workplace better, the dynamics of an economy better, some of the finer points of how decisions are made. Because what you see as a frontline employee is really only a small fraction of what goes into making a decision at the corporate level.
What is the latest new thing you’re trying?
We did our first vegetable garden this year. Tomatoes, peppers, basil, beets–I love beets. We made a rookie mistake and planted a pumpkin vine, and it’s taken over the whole garden. We’ve had to reroute that thing.