Story and Photos by Katie Drake

Several months ago, I was walking into work at the Stone Mill one morning and noticed a woman I’d never seen before crossing the street.  She was carrying a really cute black and white striped bag and was rocking some great royal blue shoes.

So, of course, I yelled over, “Hey!  Just have to tell you I love your bag!”  She stopped and smiled and said, “Why, thank you!”  I thought, what a pleasant woman, so I wished her a nice day, and took a few steps before it occurred to me that she might be the new Executive Director of Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts.  When she said yes, I crossed the street to meet her.  (I also told her what a big fan I am of MVCA and then dumped the thought on her, that I think art isn’t just for rich white people and our accessibility could be broader.)  It was the first of many great conversations.

Meet the marvelous Mary Ellen McGillan.  If you spend just five minutes talking with her, you’ll find she’s authentic, smart as a whip, and laughs easily.   And she’s bound to ask you more questions about you than talk about herself.  She’s a voracious reader, a self-declared ‘Broadway nerd’, and a heck of a nice person.

Last week, on the coldest day of 2022 to date, I drove up the hill toward the golf course.  It was one of those days where the snow squeaks when you walk on it.  And when it’s -12 and sunny, the reflection off the snow seems brighter than the actual sun.

Photo by Katie Drake – The historic Bellinger-Zimmerman farm and homestead which Mary Ellen McGillan and her husband Tom Overman have been restoring for the last seven years.

A self-described “city mouse” Mary Ellen has lived here part-time since 2011 and full-time since late 2020.  She says she’s grown to love Little Falls and the 1824  Bellinger-Zimmerman historic farm and homestead she and her husband Tom Overman have been restoring for the past seven years.

As I turned off the main road and drove up the long drive to their home, I watched the smoke curling up from their chimneys.  It took me back and I pictured myself rolling on up in a fancy horse and buggy in the 1800s.  The house is spectacular.  It’s been tastefully renovated to show off its history while maintaining a cozy feel.  And it’s full of really cool art, especially Mary Ellen’s office, which is just so very her.

How did you come to Little Falls?

“11 years ago, my husband Tom was visiting the area for a family funeral.  His mother’s family goes back to the 1850s in Herkimer County from the Fairfield, Middleville,  Newport, and Poland areas.  Tom had some time on his hands and got the idea that he wanted to go look at some property to buy.  He called Van Billings and found this place.

I was in Oregon and he called and said, ‘Honey, (long pause)… we bought a farm.’”  When I asked her what her initial reaction was, she laughed and said, “Um… I don’t think you should write that down.  I think my reaction was WTH?!”

Every trip Mary Ellen made with Tom to visit Central New York was always during summer.  They have been here full time since Dec of 2020 because of COVID.  This is her second winter here.

Photo by Katie Drake – The temperature was pretty warm – more like California during the interview.

“What are the positives of winter… well… It’s only four months long!   My favorite part is the view of the Mohawk Valley out this window, in front of my woodstove.”   At that point, it occurred to me it was pretty hot in that room.  As I glanced across the room at the thermostat with the sun streaming in and the wood stove roaring, I noted the temperature was a balmy 79 degrees.  It was then I decided to tell her, “It does feel a bit like California in here.”

What drew her to MVCA?

Mary Ellen wasn’t retired.  When she left San Francisco because of COVID and came back here full time, she really took her time.  It was December, it was 2020, we were all in lockdown.  “There was like 15 feet of snow out there and I just took my time thinking about what I want to do next. I loved my career and have been blessed.”  In the spring of 2021, one of Tom’s cousins sent her an email about the position at MVCA.  She did some research.

“What was attractive to me is that I wanted to do something where I could be a contributing member of the community and also have a legacy.  I really wanted to have an opportunity to have an impact.  I have always believed that education, arts, and culture are economic drivers.  You can feel the buzz is different in LF than it was even 10 years ago when I first came here.  There is excitement and opportunity.  I saw MVCA as an opportunity for me to have an impact.”

What’s her background?

Photo by Katie Drake – A photo of Mary Ellen McGillan’s grandmother planting a tree in 1910 Omaha Nebraska.

Hanging behind her on the wall is an old black and white picture.  Taken in 1910 in Omaha, Nebraska, it’s a photo of her grandmother planting a tree.  The tree was part of a fundraiser by a local Priest for an orphanage he had started. That would be Father Flannigan’s Boys Town.  A beautiful reminder of Mary Ellen’s philanthropic roots.

“I didn’t go to school to be a fundraiser.  Philanthropy is a joyful act. I enjoy helping people who have more than they need support people who have less than they need.  Most of my career has been in higher education fundraising.  I thought I would get my PhD and teach at a university.  I was a sociology and political science major.

The irony is after college I was a VISTA (now AmeriCorps) volunteer for 2 years, as a community organizer in South Carolina, then I went to graduate school in Tennessee and decided that that wasn’t for me.  It’s funny that I ended up in Higher Ed as an administrator.

I enjoy fundraising because it’s about relationship building.  I’m naturally inquisitive, so I enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories.  One of the best parts about the work at MVCA is that I have had the chance to meet so many interesting people.  People that I had no idea lived and worked in the region.”

Plans for MVCA?

“I spent the first few months listening to people in the community.  People have been gracious with introductions to people they thought I ought to take the time to get to know.  I listened a lot.  I am most proud of the relationships I’ve built in my time here.

What’s great about Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts is the artists, teachers, volunteers, the board members, the donors, the people who support the center, and the fact that it’s in Little Falls.  The Art Teachers in Herkimer County are just tremendous!  The people- that’s what makes any community.  The business community has been very welcoming and sees the Arts Center as an important asset that has been underutilized.   People want to see the Arts Center thrive and expand and be successful.”

Mary Ellen thinks MVCA can be a partner in helping drive the economic revitalization of our communities in the Mohawk Valley, a resource that can enhance the quality of life here and help to attract families and new people.  She said, “I want the MVCA to be actively engaged in raising the tide for everyone.  My goal is to have the center grow and expand.  The non-profit sector has been my passion all my life and I want MVCA to continue to thrive and be a sustainable organization.”

There is a need to expand their membership.   It’s also the 40th Anniversary of MVCA this year.  Mary Ellen and the Art Center Board of Directors will be developing a new strategic plan.

“There are three areas that I see for our path to growth. First, provide more programming for younger people, exposing them to the arts and making art accessible to them at a younger age by coordinating with our schools, and also to partner with places like the local libraries and the K-12 schools.”

“The second is to address the desire for the MVCA to be more visible and active in other parts of the Mohawk Valley.  We will offer programming and events in addition to the 401 Gallery.  Many people would very much like to see us bring the MVCA’s programs to their communities and use their spaces.  I also plan to bring in new artists and have a bigger variety of programs to offer like music, performing arts, visual arts, ceramics, in addition to the fine arts.”

“The other key area for me is to build a sustainable organization that will be here for another 40 years.  My strength is that I am an experienced Not-for-Profit administrator.  I know how to develop and run an organization.  We have a business side to our organization that is an important element to the Arts Center and I will continue to help it thrive.”

Final Thoughts

“I remember a bumper sticker from when my kids were in grade school: Art Saves Lives.  And I just remember thinking, really, does it?  But then I think about my own kids’ experiences and it did change their lives.”

“When our son Jeremiah was a freshman in high school, he was assigned a group project where they had to make a film about Greek Mythology and it changed his life.  He went to school for that and now owns his own film company, Turren Films, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Combined, his music videos and movies have over 100 million views on YouTube.”

“Our son James took a pottery class in high school.  While he doesn’t have a career in the arts, he has a whole artistic side with ceramics, woodcarving, that kind of thing.  Arts are an important element in the community.  And I, of course, love performing arts.  I am a Broadway nerd.  My sisters often accuse me of stalking Lin-Manuel Miranda online.”

As you can see, she’s got big plans.   And I believe she’s going to do it.  Mary Ellen McGillan believes in MVCA and our community of Little Falls.  When asked about her favorite thing about Little Falls, she replied, “The people.  I really enjoy getting to know people, it’s a very welcoming community and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Photo by Katie Drake – Mary Ellen McGillan and her husband Tom Overman stand in the hallway of their restored Bellinger-Zimmerman historic farmhouse.


Katie Drake moved to Little Falls in 2003 and fell in love with this city. She says she isn’t really a writer, but a storyteller.

The opportunity to highlight the great people of Little Falls, share her personal perspectives and some humor from time to time piqued her interest and here we are.

Just ask her, and she’ll tell you that after growing up in Millers Mills, population 25+ (according to the sign), Little Falls was just the right size. Katie is the oldest of her two brothers and five sisters.

In 2020 Katie and her best friend Chris began their greatest adventure yet in 2020, with the birth of their sweet and sassy son Nolan who makes them laugh every day.

In her free time, Katie loves to snowmobile, golf, hike, and travel.

If you have feedback on one of her articles or an idea for a story, please feel free to reach out to Katie at KatherineDrakeLF@gmail.com, she would love to hear from you.

If this article leaves you wanting more, or you are just bored out of your mind, feel free to check out other articles she has contributed by visiting Katie Drake Archives – My Little Falls.