Greensgrow founder Corboy an uncommon Philadelphia leader

Tomatoes on the vine at Greensgrow in Kensington are just a small part of the legacy of the urban farm's founder

Tomatoes on the vine at Greensgrow in Kensington are just a small part of the legacy of the urban farm's founder

Mary Seton Corboy, founder of Greensgrow, a pioneering urban farm in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, died on Aug. 7 at the age of 58 from complications from cancer. Leadership Philadelphia CEO Liz Dow, who met Corboy during her time in Leadership Philadelphia’s Core program, has this remembrance.

As she walked into my office for her Core interview, I looked up, startled. I recognized her face, but could not remember meeting her before. I asked if we had met and she said, “I don’t think so.”

As she talked me through her history, with its unusual twists and turns, she mentioned the time she pulled artist Andrew Wyeth out of a snowbank. Andrew Wyeth? I started to laugh.

“Oh my God, you are an Andrew Wyeth portrait! That’s why you seem familiar!”

She looked down modestly and said, “I think he thought my father was in the CIA and he was fascinated with that.”

tumblr o0i1e8nuNu1snya97o1 1280“The Liberal,” 1993, drybrush and watercolor, by Andrew Wyeth (AP Photo/Baltimore Museum of Art)

She was refreshingly unaware of the striking beauty of her bright blue eyes and patrician cheekbones. She then went on to talk about working as his chef and gardener. This led to a discussion about chefs and knives, and how she had once been stabbed. I was mesmerized by her improbable stories and quick wit, and looked forward to having her in class.

Over the years Mary (or Seton as I call her, an artifact of too many Marys in her Catholic School days) and I met periodically to talk about the goings-on at Greensgrow and about growing her board. Several alumni served on the board over the years, and it was once chaired by her Leadership teammate David St. Clair. The highly successful Harvard/Penn-educated tech entrepreneur and the smart, feisty civic rebel got along famously, each respecting the other’s outsider view and ability to get things done. (Mary would not have used the word “things” in that sentence.)

Mary won national and local acclaim for her creative and tireless commitment to urban farming. Not only did she create and expand Greensgrow, she shifted the model to serve the neighborhood. Her farm, which started as a curiosity to the neighbors, became a community hub and a magnet for families seeking healthy food and conversation.

Each year since Mary’s graduation, we have had her speak to the Core class on sustainability day. She would show up sheepishly, apologizing in advance for whatever came out of her mouth and wondering aloud whom she might offend with her colorful language and occasionally anti-corporate views. When she took the podium, she’d grab the group’s attention with her humor and uncensored views and language. Suddenly she’d remember to get down to the business of explaining Greensgrow.

As she went through the story of its success, accompanied by compelling slides of community and food, her vision became clear. She grabbed our attention and challenged us to think about food access as a social issue. The audience would applaud loudly. The evaluations say it all: “genuine, authentic, a character who get things done, not afraid to be herself, a true leader.”

As my dad used to say, “They broke the mold when they made that one!” Mary was, indeed, one of a kind and a bright light in the constellation of leaders in this town. Wyeth called her “The Liberal.” I’d call her “The Real Deal.”

Liz Dow is the CEO of Leadership Philadelphia, a non-profit organization that mobilizes and connects the talent of the private sector to serve the community. Through its Core Program, Leadership Philadelphia enhances participants’ civic knowledge and awareness, and enriches their leadership skills.

Read more about Mary Seton Corboy.

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