By Elisabeth Costanzo Stewart

As the community’s college, SUNY Broome places a large emphasis on encouraging students to actively participate in civic engagement. The student portal is always filled with reminders to register to vote, invitations to participate in deliberations and debates, and calls for volunteers to work on campaigns. The Civic Engagement Initiative is guided by an advisory board chaired by SUNY Broome alum, Town of Dickinson Councilwoman Sharon Exley (LA ’74). For Exley, serving in this critical role is the perfect way to blend her appreciation for her alma mater and her devotion to the Town of Dickinson, in which SUNY Broome’s main campus resides. 

Sharon Exley was born in Johnson City, NY, and lived on Harry L. Drive when the commercial street of today was purely homes and farmland. Her father, a machinist in WWII, started his own company, General Machine Co., just blocks from their home. Sharon and her mother and sister were regulars at the shop, often walking over after school to help out by cleaning the machines. One day, while tidying up, Sharon told her father that she couldn’t wait to work with him. He quickly replied, “Little girls don’t do this kind of work.” 

“I remember looking at my father and just wondering why,” Exley explained. “That was the moment that I woke up. At that time, women were pigeonholed into roles. We were allowed to be teachers, or nurses, or secretaries, or homemakers. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to do any of those things. I knew that there had to be more options.”

Sharon came of age during the “Camelot Era,” and was thrilled by all of the changes happening in such a short time. Women were becoming less like June Cleaver and more like Betty Friedan. Inspired by the shift, Exley participated in her first expression of activism when she and the girls in her eighth-grade class protested against the school dress code. (Below the knee skirts only). Together, they arrived at school donning their best, unauthorized culottes, and were promptly sent home to change. Instead of putting on their skirts and returning, they unitedly remained at home. The dress code was changed shortly after. 

After graduating high school, Exley came to SUNY Broome, then BCC, to study Liberal Arts and Sciences: A.A. as a first-generation college student. Sharon’s dream job was to be an archeologist, but she was hesitant to leave the region that she loved so dearly. Instead, she kept her options open as a liberal arts student and prepared to transfer. 

In addition to picking up her degree at SUNY Broome, she picked up two best friends. Exley and classmates Pat Barron Harnan (LA ‘73) and Debbie Smisko (LA ‘73) just celebrated their 50th year of friendship. Photo Credit: Matt Ebbers

Exley transferred to SUNY Oswego, but a bout of mono required her to stop mid-semester and return home to recuperate. It was around that time that she met her soon-to-be husband, Jim Exley (LA ’74). They got married, established their careers, started a family, and purchased a home.

When their children were young, the Exley’s moved to the Town of Dickinson. A few years later, rumors started to swirl that two major local energy plants were working together to develop large overhead transmission lines through their neighborhood. Sharon and her fellow residents worried that the lines would be detrimental, and they sprung into action. Together, they attended board meetings, picketed the plants’ headquarters, and hired legal counsel for additional representation. Their full-bore effort was victorious, and the project was pulled from consideration. 

“As all of this was happening, I kept wondering why the town board was not sticking up for us,” Exley explained. “The neighbors that I worked closely with during the energy plants saga encouraged me to run for a council seat to represent Prospect Terrace in the Town of Dickinson.” 

Exley lost her first bid for a town board seat, but didn’t get discouraged. She ran in the following election in 1995 and hasn’t lost a race since. For the past 28 years, Sharon Exley has worked tirelessly to update infrastructure, create policies, and develop new spaces and opportunities to enhance the town.

Balancing life as a wife, mother, Broome County employee, and councilwoman certainly wasn’t and isn’t easy, particularly during an election year. 

“I’ll never forget the day that I was out campaigning, when I realized that my son, who was in kindergarten, had a half-day of school,” said Exley. “I was beside myself and cried the whole way home. Thankfully our neighbor noticed him sitting on the curb and invited him in. That was over two decades ago and I still haven’t forgiven myself.” 

Over the years, Councilwoman Exley has been approached to run for other elected positions in a larger arena, but she quickly declined. 

“I personally feel that I can make the most direct impact in small, local government,” said Exley. “As a councilwoman, I live beside my constituents. They can easily reach out with concerns and I am there to do my best to support their needs. My main goal is simply to work with my fellow council members to make life safer and better for the people of the Town of Dickinson.”

Were you inspired by Councilwoman Exley’s story? Read more stories about our civically engaged alumni in the digital edition of BROOME Magazine!

Broome County Sheriff Fred Akshar, Chair and Councilmember for the Town of Dickinson Sharon Exley, NYS Senator Lea Webb, and Broome County Executive Jason Garnar. Photo Credit: Matt Ebbers

Tags: , , , ,