If you were going to make a movie about Judith Huntington’s life, you might look to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for inspiration, then add a dash of “Gone With The Wind.”
“I grew up in Mount Vernon on California Road in a stately mansion with wrought iron gates with my big fat Italian family,” she says. “It was like Tara. It was really fun to grow up with my grandparents and cousins.”
Part of the fun was the nearby Flying Arrow Stables, which Huntington first visited when she was 9 years old.
“I just fell in love with it from the first time I was on the back of a horse,” she says. “I felt as if I were one with the horse.”
It’s a feeling that Huntington – now president of The College of New Rochelle – savored again recently when she visited Birdstone Farm in Cross River for a photo shoot with WAG’s David Bravo. (Huntington, who lives in New Milford, rides at Starlight Farm in the Connecticut town.)
A stunning blonde, she brims with enthusiasm for whatever she undertakes, be it horsemanship or educational leadership. So it’s no surprise that she took to Birdstone (“a beautiful, elegant farm”) and Tallulah, “a beautiful, big horse” that had been a working animal for the Amish. After “a few bonding moments” with Tallulah – Huntington pet her and gave her some hay – she took her outdoors for “a little loosening up.”
“By the time we got in the indoor ring, there was that feeling of total relaxation that horse and rider dream of,” she recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘I could do this all day long.’ We were just totally as one.”
That bond between horse and rider is one that Huntington, who started participating in horse shows when she was very young, has sought throughout her life. After the family moved to Thornwood, she rode at Beech Hill Farm Equestrian Center in Pleasantville. Then when she was in high school, her parents bought her Napoleon, a big thoroughbred.
“He was sleek and honest and would take me over every single jump.”
Huntington competed locally in dressage – sometimes referred to as “horse ballet” – in which the rider takes the horse through a series of movements with the utmost subtlety.
“Dressage is all about form. You’re controlling the horse with the leg, the voice and a light touch of the hand. It’s the sense of response between the two of us.”
As much as she loved riding Napoleon, caring for him was just as important to her.
“I was a barn rat,” says Huntington, who boarded Napoleon at Greenfield Stables in Armonk, where the late owner Jerry Carollo was her trainer. (Jerry’s widow, Kristen, and her Courtyard Farm in Bedford Hills were profiled in last May’s horse issue.) “In high school and college (Pace University), I worked at the barn for (Napoleon’s) board. Riding is an expensive, expensive hobby. I felt I was doing what I could to contribute.” (Little did she know that her schoolteacher-mother and lawyer-father were putting her contributions in the bank for her future.)
But she also fed Napoleon and groomed him. “It’s the total experience that creates the bond.”
The nurturing aspect of horsemanship explains the powerful connection between horses and women, she says.
“I love all animals,” adds the “mom” of two dogs – Lola, a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, and Daisy, a Yorkie Poo. “I’m a CPA by training, but my dream job would be to have been a vet.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, she does not venture to the track.
“I don’t enjoy it. It’s foreign to me. I worry about how the animals may be treated.”
Concern for Napoleon, who was suffering from shoulder bursitis, ultimately led Huntington to donate him to the Kent School in Connecticut.
Even though he was going to a good home, “It was the saddest day of my life. I loved him and I know he loved me and trusted me.”
An equestrian passion is just part, however, of what makes Huntington tick. Even as a young girl, she was too caught up in her schoolwork and such varsity sports as softball and volleyball to take her show-riding to the next plane. Working is another key facet of her personality.
“I’ve had a job since I was 15. It’s a very important part of who I am.”
Before joining The College of New Rochelle in 2001 as vice president for financial affairs, she worked for 15 years with the accounting firm KPMG L.L.P. as audit senior manager in the company’s metro New York higher education, research and other nonprofit practice, providing audit and accounting services. She also worked in the firm’s banking and Securities and Exchange Commission practice and was an instructor and recruiter.
On July 1 of last year, she became the 13th president in the college’s 108-year history.
“I couldn’t be more proud and privileged to be president. It’s an opportunity to be creative and innovative.”
Founded by the Ursulines, a Roman Catholic religious order, CNR remains committed to the order’s core values of liberal arts education, particularly for women, and service to others, she says.
“What worries me today is that students are learning informal communication with Twitter and Facebook,” she says. “We need to train students to think critically and to communicate. You need to know how to write, I don’t care what you do for a living.”
While three of the college’s four schools – the School of Nursing, the Graduate School and the School of New Resources – are coed, the School of Arts and Sciences remains devoted to educating women. And though many members of the “unique” student body – which includes married and first-generation individuals – aren’t Catholic, “they all have the opportunity to experience the value of service.” CNR has been named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service 2012 Honor Roll – the third year in a row that the college has received this national recognition.
Under her leadership, the college has maintained an investment grade Baa3 rating from Moody’s Investor Services and completed the $28 million Wellness Center for club and intercollegiate sports, fitness and health education. The building has been awarded silver LEED certification as an example of sustainable architecture.
As she keeps the college on track, Huntington meets once a month with her predecessor, Stephen J. Sweeny.
“I credit him with a wonderful transition,” says Huntington, who was president-elect for a year. “We talk, we laugh. What a wonderful opportunity to have a confidant like him.”
With a demanding job and a devoted family – husband Brad is president of Tri-State Engineering, daughter Amanda is a junior at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield and son Bradley Jr. is a senior at Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers – there’s not that much time for riding.
“But I carve out the time,” she says. “I fit it in.”
Because for Huntington, riding is a metaphor for life.
Challenges, after all, may throw you. “But you’ve got to get back on the horse.”