President's Blog

Archive for July 2012

Away For a While

Summer activities continue in full force on campus: “Exploring Engineering Design,” a hands-on, project-based summer camp for girls, has been here all week. I could tell they’d arrived because a heap of pink campus bikes that have been used beyond repair appeared on the lawn in front of Guion. They were clearly being transmuted into something, but what? I couldn’t tell. Here’s an explanation from our news story:

“In front of Guion, two high school girls work feverishly on a rusty pink bicycle. They’ve taken the rubber tire off the back wheel and are getting ready to attach a PVC pipe. Clearly, no one’s going to ride the bike anymore. Instead, it’s being repurposed as a “sunflower seeder,” explain 16-year-old Carter Kyle from Austin, Texas, and Hanna Frazier, 17, from Utah.”

Professor Hank Yochum explains that a low-maintenance machine capable of shelling edible seeds is of great value in the developing world and so makes a terrific project for students, demonstrating the power of relatively simple engineering solutions to address real life problems and improve quality of life.

Elsewhere on campus, high school juniors and seniors and their families will soon be visiting as part of Virginia Private College Week. Walkways near the Chapel are being resurfaced, the construction fence has gone up around the library, and paint is drying in several renovated classrooms. The renovated servery in Prothro opened last week, in plenty of time for any last minute wrinkles to be ironed out before students return. Preparations to welcome the class of 2016 are underway in earnest — I signed welcome letters to each one of them this week and yesterday the Deans’ Office staff was preparing their orientation packets. It’s a busy time. . .

This is also the point in the summer when Rick and I take some time to enjoy the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, celebrating both our wedding anniversary and Rick’s birthday with wonderful shows and a few good books. This summer we have tickets to performances of a new play about the War of 1812, The Matchmaker, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Pirates of Penzance, Cymbeline, and a Canadian play entitled “Best Brothers.” We’ll be back in about 10 days!


Heroes of the Derecho

The storms that passed through campus several weeks ago now created a lot of work for a lot of people. Everyone — and I do mean everyone — who was on campus pitched in. That’s just the kind of place this is.

But I think all would agree that staff members in Physical Plant and Hospitality played especially vital roles. The tasks of clearing roads and paths, removing fallen limbs and trees, maintaining generators, feeding summer program guests and making sure they had flashlights, repairing damaged fences and fixtures, and more fell to them — mostly without power and in 100-degree heat.

Vice President Scott Shank gave them a “thank you” lunch earlier this week. As you can see it was quite a spread!

Scott cooked it all himself: more than 30 pounds of shrimp with sausage, potatoes, and corn to boot. And watermelon. And something Scott calls “candy-bar cake,” which is just as decadent as it sounds.

Most of these staff members would be the first to say they were only doing their jobs. Which is entirely true — they were doing their jobs, skillfully, tirelessly, cheerfully. That’s just the kind of place this is.

Can you read the caption on Scott’s apron? “Many have eaten, few have died.”

Who knew?

I’ve been reading Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which I’m finding to be quite compelling.  Millay’s was not an admirable life, but its themes are resonant — it’s the story of, among many other things, a talented woman trying to craft a new role for women and poetry in the early years of the 20th century. It’s also a story of ego, lust (for fame, sex, admiration), self-absorption, and addiction.

In my reading I had reached what are clearly Millay’s declining years when I ran across this sentence: “She was also in the care of the distinguished Dr. Connie Guion, who had come to Steepletop.” (At which I sat up with a yelp, causing Rick, who was quietly reading the Sunday paper, to wonder whether a bee had stung me.)

Yes, THAT Connie Guion. After serving on the faculty at Sweet Briar from 1910 – 13, which she did in part to help support the college education of her younger sisters, Guion went to medical school and graduated first in her class. She had a long and distinguished career in medicine; in 1946, for example, she became the first woman professor of clinical medicine. Among her many accomplishments were significant improvements in the hospital treatment available to poor and working class patients and creating a new curriculum for medical students at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Guion died in 1971, the year I graduated from high school. Hers clearly was an admirable life.

Several pages in Savage Beauty are dedicated to the story of Dr. Guion’s treatment of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Some of it raises interesting questions about Dr. Guion’s role in treating (or perhaps at some points enabling) Millay’s addiction to morphine. Milford also quotes from Dr. Guion’s notebooks on the topic of menopause, which Millay was experiencing at the time: Guion noted wryly that it is in fact “not necessary to get fat or depressed.” (p. 439)  A profile in the National Library of Medicine notes that Connie Guion was known for her “common sense, perennial good humor and collection of outlandish hats.”

A portrait of Connie Guion hangs in the dining room at Sweet Briar House and for three years I’ve shown it to guests with pride. But I now know much more about her career than I previously did and I admire her more than ever. Although her time at Sweet Briar was short, we remember her for good reason; it’s entirely fitting that our science building carries her name.

May the students who work in Guion Hall daily be inspired by her ambition, dedication, care for the least advantaged, and good sense. . . .


History and Family

With descendants of Martha Penn Taylor and Tusculum Institute Director Lynn Rainville

This week I had the great good fortune to spend time with descendants of Martha Penn Taylor who visited campus as part of their research into their family’s history.

Martha Penn Taylor, as those familiar with Sweet Briar history well know, was an enslaved woman who was purchased in her youth by Elijah Fletcher and who, employed by the Fletcher family for many years after Emancipation, later served as nursemaid and nanny to Elijah’s granddaughter Daisy. Martha lived in the area until sometime between 1910 and 1920. She is buried in her family’s plot in nearby Coolwell cemetery.

Family members with a reproduction of Martha’s 1854 letter to Elijah Fletcher

The family found out about their connection to Martha, to Sweet Briar, and to the Fletcher family through the online resources created by Lynn Rainville, Director of the Tusculum Institute. (The Institute’s summer newsletter is here, if you’d like to catch up on some of their other recent doings.) One of the priorities of the Institute is to research the history of all people who lived and worked on this property throughout its history and to educate members of the campus and local communities about them. A recent grant, for example, will support historical interpretation of the slave cabin, bringing museum experts and community members together to advise Sweet Briar about how to use the cabin to tell meaningful stories about the many people who have lived and worked on what is now the campus. (Naturally, our visitors wanted to know whether there is any evidence that Martha herself might have occupied the cabin at any point: alas, our knowledge of the cabin’s occupants only begins at a later date.)

It isn’t easy to think about the period of enslavement, much less to talk about it. But for these members of Martha Penn Taylor’s family, the opportunity visit places where their ancestor lived and worked and to learn more about the community of which she was a part was clearly gratifying. And they provided Sweet Briar with information about their history that expands our understanding of another of the families with roots in this soil.

The Tusculum Institute is creating invaluable connections between the Sweet Briar of yesterday and of today and between the campus and its communities. In the process it expands our knowledge and our understanding of this place we love so deeply.


Derecho, 2012

Most of you are probably aware, from Facebook, sbc.edu, or other communications, that like so many in our region we at Sweet Briar experienced an extended power outage after the derecho passed through last week.

Thank goodness, no one was hurt! This being Sweet Briar, as soon as the storm had passed Physical Plant and Campus Safety staff were on the scene, neighbors were out checking on neighbors, and summer program leaders were making sure all campers were OK. Property damage was significantly less than it might have been: branches fell within yards of vehicles, trees scraped gutters off a house when they fell just short of crashing through the roof, and there was evidence of many other such close calls.

We are particularly grateful that the families of Professors Dave Griffith and Tom Scott are safe. At the Griffith home on campus falling trees crashed through the roof — but no one was injured. In Lynchburg, a falling tree trapped Mrs. Scott and her son in their car — but both were safely extricated with only minor injuries.

Lucky as we were, of course, the last week has been quite difficult. The combination of high temperatures, the power outage, interrupted communications (land line phones, internet, and cell service have all been affected), and a massive job of damage assessment, cleanup, maintaining basic operations, and coordinating communications has been taxing for all members of the community.

But, this being Sweet Briar, everyone has pitched in, been resourceful, patient and creative, and just kept on moving forward! Holla holla to each and every one who has lent a hand, responded to calls for assistance, done her or his job as well as possible without power or light. . .

Today power is restored to most of campus — not all, the rest should come up in the next day or two — and we’re working diligently to welcome a new batch of summer programs on Sunday, resume the offerings of the Blue Ridge Summer Theater Festival, and get all offices back into operation for Monday.

What a year this has been! We opened 2011-12 with an earthquake, you’ll recall, and ended it with a derecho. We’ll be telling stories about both for a long time to come.