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NYS Writers Institute announces $1 million donation from local philanthropists Chet and Karen Opalka

Chet and Karen Opalka's "transformative gift assures the continued excellence of the Writers Institute for the next 40 years and beyond"


During a kickoff celebration for our 40th anniversary season, University at Albany President Havidán Rodríguez announced Thursday night a $1 million gift from area philanthropists Chet and Karen Opalka to establish The Opalka Endowed Directorship of the New York State Writers Institute (NYSWI) at the University at Albany.


The endowment will provide perpetual support for the Writers Institute's leadership and its creative programming, while ensuring the organization's future as one of the preeminent literary presenting organizations in the United States.


"We are making history tonight with the largest gift in the program's 40-year history," Rodríguez said at an event celebrating the Writers Institute's 40th anniversary. "The Opalkas' transformative gift assures the continued excellence of the Writers Institute for the next 40 years and beyond — and we are immensely grateful for Karen and Chet’s generosity, leadership, and friendship."

Paul Grondahl, director of the Writers Institute since 2017, will be the first recipient of the directorship.


“It is my honor and a great privilege to hold the title of The Opalka Endowed Directorship,” Grondahl said.


“Chet and Karen Opalka inspire me with their philanthropy, their sustained commitment to arts organizations across the Capital Region, and especially the Writers Institute over the years. With this gift, we can continue to bring the greatest writers from around the world and the most diverse voices in contemporary literature to UAlbany, and to share their work with Capital Region audiences. I am proud to call Chet and Karen my friends.”


Thursday's event also marked NYS Writers Institute Founder William Kennedy's 95th birthday. In his remarks from the podium Kennedy shared stories from the early days of the Institute and emphasized the mission of the Institute. "One thing that has not changed: It's about the writing." Speaking to the Opalkas, Kennedy said, "This is a major, major, major development in our history, and we thank you.”


Fardin Sanai, UAlbany's vice president for advancement, noted the importance of the endowed directorship: "We have been blessed to have at the helm of the New York State Writers Institute a world-class leader in Paul Grondahl. Endowed positions, like this one, attract the best and the brightest minds to the University at Albany. We are grateful to the Opalkas for their amazing support."


“Karen and I are excited to announce The Opalka Endowed Directorship of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany,” Chet Opalka said. “This gift represents our ongoing support of the tremendous work of director Paul Grondahl and his team in bringing the greatest writers from around the world to UAlbany to enrich the cultural life of the Capital Region.”

University at Albany Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Kim, NYS Writers Institute Founder William Kennedy, Director Paul Grondahl, Karen Opalka, Chet Opalka, President Havidán Rodríguez, and Damien the Mascot at the announcement of the Opalka’s $1M gift to establish The Opalka Endowed Directorship of the New York State Writers Institute (NYSWI) at the University at Albany on Thursday, January 19, 2023. (Brian Busher / UAlbany)


Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy founded the "Writers Institute at Albany" in 1983 with part of a fellowship awarded him from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. As part of that award, known as the MacArthur "Genius" Award, $15,000 for five years went to the institution of Kennedy’s choice, and he chose the University at Albany. The University made a commitment to match those funds in order to establish a visiting writers series. Read more about our history.


Hugs all around! From left, Paul Grondahl, Karen Opalka, Chet Opalka, and Havidán Rodríguez.


The Albany Pipe Band entertained the audience at Thursday's 40th Anniversary kickoff celebration.


More photos from our 40th Anniversary / 95th Happy Birthday William Kennedy Celebration

Special thanks to UAlbany photographer Brian Busher.











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