At 91, a Retired CFO Still Advises Students on How to Pay for College

Long Island U.

Mary M. Lai
October 15, 2012

Mary M. Lai, 91, was Long Island University's first chief financial officer, a post from which she retired after almost 58 years. Ms. Lai, who is treasurer emerita and a senior adviser at the university, still works every weekday. She recently became the first recipient of the Pathfinder Award, given by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, to acknowledge her status as one of the first women to serve as a CFO. Here's her story, as told to Audrey Williams June.

I was a 1942 graduate of Long Island University. I majored in economics and accounting, and I also took education courses so I could teach business in high school. I had always wanted to be a teacher.

With World War II going on, the field of public accounting opened up. I heard there was a firm that was looking for a woman because all their young men were being drafted. They interviewed me and offered me a job when I graduated in May.

I got married a little more than a year after I went to work for them. My husband was in the Naval Air Corps, and I followed him and was a bookkeeper for the Navy. Then they found out I knew accounting and I could do taxes. So they created a civil-service job for me.

The president of Long Island University called me in March of 1946—I was working at Arthur Young accounting by then—and said the business officer had left. He wanted me to come work for him right away. At the time, I really wanted to teach on the college level, and to get my CPA and do public accounting. But I went to Long Island on a full scholarship, and I felt like I owed them something. So I agreed to be the bursar for one year. And then I couldn't leave.

The job was challenging, but I loved being able to help people. During registration I liked to get up at the counter and talk to students. I could advise them on how to save up money so they could pay for school.

In the 40s, when I started, there were quite a few women who were bursars. The bursar really only had to be concerned with billing students, collecting tuition, dormitories, the payroll. Later on, purchasing got to be a big area. Then, as things began to get more complicated, colleges generally hired a man whose title was either director of finance or controller.

Everybody used to tell me that I had a man's job. I would say no, I don't have a man's job. A job doesn't have a gender.

I'm retired, but I work every day from 9 to 6. I do development work and advising—not just the president. I go to all the board meetings, all the university officers' meetings. I'm still in a position to help people. Faculty members frequently recommend that a student who has a problem with their finances come to me. I had a student who was going to drop out, and I said no, make it part-time, because if you drop out, you won't come back. I have a passion to help Long Island University. My children say Long Island comes first, and I say no, Long Island is my third child.