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Our latest Pal-Mac Alumni Spotlight focuses on Susan S. Cooney, a 1964 graduate. Click on this article to learn more about her story that took her from Pal-Mac to changing the world through the legal system.

 

 

APRIL 13,2023— Our latest Pal-Mac Alumni Spotlight focuses on a 1964 grad who had ambitions to help change the world and did just that.

 

We visited Susan Schoenthaler Cooney at her law office along North Main Street in the City of Canandaigua. She's worked out of the historic brick building since buying it in 1988.

 

Her office is decorated with paintings, law books, and even a Rolodex of business cards she's kept since graduating college.

 

Cooney is an attorney currently practicing in family, divorce, custody, and personal injury law, among other areas. She just recently celebrated 50 years of practicing the law. It's a career run that's seen her go from focusing on housing law to being the City of Canandaigua Attorney, among other roles.

 

"It's a good profession; you can do all kinds of things with it," Cooney said.

 

And it's a profession Cooney says she was all but born to serve in.

 

Cooney sits at a desk in her office (Provided photo)

 

ENTER TO LEARN, GO FORTH TO SERVE

 

Born Susan Schoenthaler, she grew up in the Village of Macedon and attended schools in the District.

 

Her father, William, was a Chiropractor in town. 

 

Cooney says one memory that sticks out to her from her early school days is a message carved in stone she and her classmates walked under every morning at the Macedon Elementary School (Now the Intermediate School).

 

The message says, "Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve."

 

She says her father once walked under the same carving when he attended the school back when it was Macedon High School, and constantly talked about it as she grew up.

 

"It was one of those life-forming things you didn't even realize what was happening when you were a kid," Cooney said.

 

The carving remains on the building, albeit in a different spot.

"Enter to Learn Go Forth to Serve" carved above a doorway at Palmyra-Macedon Intermediate School

 

Cooney says the motto stuck with her throughout her life and credits it for being part of her dedication to helping people.

 

Service was at Cooney's core long before her 50+ year law career. She started out by helping out her classmates.

 

Cooney was involved in nearly every student organization, including Student Council, Debate Club, and Student Court, among others.

 

She says she helped form the student court with her English teacher, Mr.Myers. She felt the court was needed based on what she saw as unfair treatment of student violations by the school's administration. She said the court was a way for issues to be handled "democratically."

 

Cooney also recalls holding a roughly 30-minute presentation on student protests with then-Principal Walter McKean.

 

"What do you do with your life and your career and the other things in life is helping other people," Cooney said. "And when you see a problem, you have to do what you can to fix it."

 

She also credited her late father with inspiring her to commit to service.

 

Cooney found the time to have some fun, though, as she said the 1964 class was "infamous" for its countless pranks. One prank involved placing a teacher's car between parking meters, making removal difficult.

 

Susan's 1964 Senior Picture (Zenobia 1964)

 

"We never did anything really bad, just mischievous," Cooney said.

 

She says her class routinely attends reunions and often brings up those stories.


 

CHANGING THE WORLD

After graduating from Pal-Mac, Cooney chose to attend nearby Syracuse University. However, she didn't initially choose the school for its academics. 

 

She says her parents wouldn't let her attend the University of Rochester because her boyfriend at the time attended the school. So she looked at the Greyhound bus schedules and saw more available buses to and from Syracuse than any other school in the area.

 

She went on to get her undergraduate degree in 1968, and was then admitted to Syracuse’s College of Law in 1970.

 

She worked as a community organizer in the poorer neighborhoods of Syracuse before she was admitted into the school. 

 

At the time, women were not taken seriously in the legal field. She said women could not talk in class and had to sit in the back of the classroom.

 

She recalled a day where her fellow classmates stood up to a professor by refusing to answer a question. This was in a class where, contrary to the other classes, women were almost exclusively forced to answer questions.

 

This moment was just one of many that reminded her of her overall goal, to stand up for people. 

 

“I went to law school, not with the intent to be a lawyer, to make money, but with the intent to change the world,” Cooney said.

 

After graduating, Cooney and her then husband took jobs in New York City. She started out as a lawyer in East New York.

 

It was known for being one of the rougher areas in the city.

 

“It was a war zone,” Cooney said. “People were mugged 10 feet between the subway exit and the entrance to our office.”

 

Cooney said at its root, many of the problems facing the neighborhoods centered on housing issues. She made housing a focus of hers during her undergraduate studies.

 

Wanting to make a change, Cooney joined a team of attorneys in a Class Action Lawsuit against the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a  part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

 

Headshot from Susan (then Seel's) time as a professor at Hofstra University (provided)

 

Their case involved the evictions of tenants and one to four family housing in Brooklyn. At the time, redlining scandals were common. Redlining is a discriminatory practice where services are withheld from potential customers who live in neighborhoods classified as "hazardous" to investment.

 

Cooney said family after family was evicted without a fair chance to stand up for themselves.


 

Their case was appealed in the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit , which is a federal court. At that time, Cooney says the court was widely recognized as one of those smartest in the country.

 

She was thrust into the spotlight as the lead attorney on the appeal, just two years removed from graduating law school.

 

“I was so nervous because this was such a big deal,” Cooney said.

 

But, she and her fellow attorneys provided a strong argument, and won the case.

 

Cooney says the story made it to the front page of several newspapers, but more importantly, it helped change the way due process rights were analyzed in the United States.

 

She says her legal team’s methods were borrowed by another attorney in a Supreme Court case, which was another victory.

 

“We did get to change the world,” Cooney said.


 

DON’T LET IT GO

 

Cooney (center) sits with her family during their celebration of her 50 years in law

 

Cooney went on to spend several more years in the NYC area, including a stint as a law professor at Hofstra University on Long Island.

 

She returned to the Rochester area in 1982, the same year she bought the building she still practices law in. In addition to her law work, she also served on the city’s Historical Planning Board for nearly two decades.

 

While she has family back in Palmyra, she now exclusively lives on Canandaigua Lake, a place she would often spend summers growing up.

 

She has three grandchildren in the Pal-Mac School District, with eleven grandchildren overall. 


Some of those grandchildren attend the Intermediate School, the very same school with the carved-in motto that helped shape Cooney’s life.

 

One of her daughters, Bridget, initially recommended her mother to be recognized. 

 

“I realized what a role model she was, honestly in ways I didn’t even realize,” Bridget said. “In looking back at her career and different ways she participated in the community, judicial system, planning boards,  charities, elections etc.  She did most of these things at a time when it was not common for women to do them. As her daughter these were things she did and therefore seemed so attainable and even typical to me. She really showed me that women can do anything from such a young age.  This has transferred strength and confidence I don’t think either of us realized was being transferred to me.”


 

Despite some of the challenges she faced, Cooney says she felt she was in the right era at the right time.She cited protests surrounding the Vietnam War, and civil rights as examples of people standing up for each other in the face of adversity to make the world a better place.

 

To this day, she and her fellow classmates feel their experiences at Pal-Mac set them up with the tools necessary to make the changes they did.


 

When asked what advice she had for current and soon-tobe-graduating Pal-Mac students, Cooney said:

 

“Look for your passion in life, find the things that give you joy, and make you happy. Don’t settle for second-best. And if the first thing you try out isn’t the right one, terrific find another one.Just  keep trying until you find where you fit. And when you find it, don’t let go.”

 

Enter to learn, go forth to serve. 

 

Know an amazing alum who should be recognized? Fill out our form! Pictures and/or video can also be sent to Public Information Coordinator Andrew Hyman at andrew.hyman@palmaccsd.org

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