September 2002

Mary Lee Campbell-Wisley - New
Chief Operating Officer at Univera Healthcare

by Joseph H. Radder

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When one meets Mary Lee Campbell-Wisley for the first time she immediately makes you feel comfortable. One’s quick reaction is that here is a person you would like to have as a friend. It’s clear that her friendly personality and thorough education, combined with obvious management skills and a wealth of experience, eminently equip her for the challenging role as the chief operating officer and future president of one of Western New York’s leading companies.

Born in Gowanda, Mary Lee, as she prefers to be called, had a wonderful childhood. “I grew up in a great rural community” she remembered happily. “We lived outside of town, maybe a mile and a half and we were able to walk or ride a bike into the village and stop at the various stores. All the storekeepers knew us. We had a Five & Dime store with creaky wooden floors and a card shop with a friendly dog that always greeted us.”

Mary Lee continued, “It was a setting straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We had the Hollywood theater that was like an old opera house. The Army band came and the Marine band came. We had so many things to enjoy there.”

Mary Lee went to both elementary school and high school in Gowanda, where her love of music came into full fruition. Today she is an accomplished pianist and playing the piano is one of her two favorite forms of recreation. The other is gardening.

“As a kid I spent a great deal of time at Chautauqua lake.” she said. “I was also a Girl Scout and enjoyed going to summer camp. In fact, recently we drove by Camp Seven Hills, which brought back so many pleasant memories.”

Apparently camp was just another manifestation of Mary Lee’s love of the outdoors. She shares her fondness for country living with her husband, Chester Wisley. They live in Forestville and have twelve gardens, not counting their two vegetable gardens. “Gardening is a lot of fun, very relaxing.” she said.

Her early college days, first at SUNY, Fredonia, where she earned a Liberal Arts degree in 1971, were during the Viet Nam war era. After graduation, she began her family. It would be several years before she was able to continue her education at D’Youville College, where she earned a nursing degree in 1981. Just six years ago she went back to college again, this time to St. Bonaventure University, where she earned a masters degree in business administration.

Mary Lee’s career has always been in various facets of health care, beginning in 1981 as charge nurse in the medical/surgical unit at Tri-County Memorial hospital in Gowanda. She would hold three different positions there before moving to Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Western New York in 1987, where she would eventually become executive director of Community Blue.

In 1995 she joined the Mercy Hospital Health System as executive director of their physician hospital organization. In 1999 a former consultant to Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Western New York persuaded her to come work with him in Kingston, New York and later in Miami, Florida. While senior VP of the Neighborhood Health Partnership in Miami, she was able to reduce the plan’s costs by $5 million during the first twelve months, typical of many accomplishments over the years that obviously came to the notice of Univera’s parent company, Excellus.

She returned to Buffalo and has joined Univera Healthcare as chief operating officer and is preparing to take over as president.

Mary Lee has two related goals for Univera’s immediate future, first to gain more public recognition for the corporation’s relatively new identity and second, to communicate an understanding to the people of Western New York of “just who we are, what we stand for and what we want to do.”

When we asked about personal goals, Mary Lee gave us a wonderful quote: “Don’t tell God your plans. He’ll just laugh.” In other words, she doesn’t believe in plotting out her future. “I always think there’s something around the corner, but I don’t know what it is.”

Mary Lee Campbell-Wisley has always been family oriented. Her father, Fred Campbell, grew up on a farm in an area that is now under water in Allegheny State Park. Her mother, Doris Lake was a school teacher. She has a brother, Scott Campbell, a music teacher in Connecticut and a sister, Peg Walsh, an interior designer in Baltimore.

The Wisleys have four adult children...Jessica in Williamsville, Jeffrey in Leroy, Virginia in Gowanda and Jason in San Francisco. There are five grandsons, all in Western New York.

Mary Lee is very upbeat about the future of Buffalo/Niagara. “People are very determined here,” she observed. “I see some really good things happening. There’s a lot of dedication. We have to realize that the salvation of this area is in its people.”

The more people we meet like Mary Lee Campbell-Wisley, the more we know she’s right when she says our people are our biggest asset.

Joseph H. Radder is a freelance writer.

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