September 2023 Alum of the Month: Lisa Cholnoky ’79
Hotchkiss Alum of the Month September 2023 Lisa Cholnoky

From the moment Lisa Cholnoky ’79 first set foot on the Hotchkiss campus in 1971 while dropping off her brother, Tom Cholnoky ’74, P’09, she knew she wanted to attend the School. “I was captivated by the energy, and thought, ‘If only they would accept girls.’” Five years later, after coeducation had become a reality, she enrolled in one of the first classes to admit young women. She is now a champion of giving back and promoting decency in everyday life through conversations and actions that continue to inspire alumni, including spearheading a grassroots campaign to address civil discourse in politics, establishing National Decency Day, and actively volunteering for Ukraine relief efforts.

Hotchkiss proved to be everything she’d hoped for in a school. “I still have my Emerson and Thoreau textbooks marked up with highlighters and notes. Geoff Marchant’s P’93,’07 daily theme assignments serve me to this day. Excellence was evident in French class with Alban Barker and in American studies with Jim Marks.” She learned other valuable lessons on the Class of ’49 Fields: “True gentleman scholar and field hockey coach Neil Scott P’77,’78,’82 fostered bona fide team spirit and respect.” 

Her Hotchkiss experience extends far beyond her time as a student. In 1986, the Board launched a strategic initiative as the first step to create a planning structure to carry Hotchkiss forward to its second century. It was designed as “an efficient mechanism for receiving input on long-term issues from all members of the Hotchkiss community,” including alumni and faculty members. Cholnoky was asked to serve. “At my first meeting as one of two women at the table, I was assigned to lead the ‘diversity’ charge. One key contribution involved proposing that faculty member Sam Coughlin P’91,’93 join. Coughlin was a role model for girls on campus and, later, the first female dean of faculty. The goal was to make Hotchkiss the best independent secondary school of its size in the United States. Thirty years later, Hotchkiss fine-tuned the mission statement, continuing to address the times we live in today.”

Graduating from Dartmouth with honors in French literature, Cholnoky studied in Europe before joining the world of finance. After developing a strong international network through her careers at Citibank and Institutional Investor magazine, she opened in New York the first U.S. office of Brunswick Group International, a leading U.K. strategic financial communications firm, and helped launch the company’s global expansion.

Inspiration is one of her long suits. “I am passionate about making connections, not only for myself, but also for connecting others. This has served me well professionally and also in fundraising and championing important causes.” After a career in financial services and marketing, she turned to advocacy and exploring ways to give back.

In 2017, Cholnoky launched a movement to inspire decency in everyday life. She began by mailing 535 letters and “Decency” buttons to every member of Congress. The effort was recognized on the floor of the House with a speech encouraging both sides to reach across the aisle to restore a sense of respect and dignity to American politics and beyond. “Communities have been divided, and we have lost the ability to have civil discussions,” she says. Many Hotchkiss alumni have supported the campaign over the years, such as Axel Bhandari ’19 and Ivy Bhandari ’21, who served as 2019 Connecticut Decency diplomats. 

Cholnoky established National Decency Day in 2019 and, working with students in more than 25 states, received national coverage and bipartisan support in Washington, D.C. May 14, 2024, marks the fifth anniversary of the launch as Cholnoky continues to “spread the word.”

The war in Ukraine is also a personal cause for the Cholnoky family. “Our parents were Hungarian refugees, and they received aid from various organizations and strangers when they left their country during World War II. Our family had close ties in Nagypalád, Ukraine, once Hungarian territory, where a Cholnoky Arts & Music School is located. We worked with organizations to aid refugees by raising money for the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation (HHRF) and by volunteering our time on the ground,” she said. “Through our fundraising, we were able to send donations to Budapest in the first weeks of the conflict. Supplies went to Uszka, a border town overwhelmed by the number of refugees, with funds going directly to the village authorities.”

She and her sister Marianne flew to Budapest for crucial coordination with refugee relief organizations, including Migration Aid, which operated a hostel housing up to 260 refugees in transit. “Countless groups provided medical, legal, housing, food, and emotional support to the Ukrainian people. The war has no end in sight, so it is important to think long-term about helping to rebuild the country and maintain the dignity of the people.” Especially rewarding was the funding of an emergency pediatric medical unit in Odessa, which was a collaboration with the HHRF and Continest, a Hungarian company that manufactures collapsible shipping containers that can also be used for temporary housing and flexible storage units.

Cholnoky’s Hotchkiss peers elected her as alumni trustee in the late 1980s, and she joined the Board just prior to the Centennial. “I worked with a group of talented people who encouraged me to find my voice in an experience that resulted in friendships spanning generations,” she said.

“Hotchkiss launched a singular network for me through organizing class reunions, fostering friendships from my brother’s class, keeping contact with faculty members, and participating in fundraising telethons and on-campus events," she said, noting that her class reunions coincide not only with those of her brother, but also of his son and her nephew, TJ Cholnoky ’09. “It was a privilege to attend Hotchkiss, and I will always value the opportunity to stay connected.”

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