President's Blog

Archive for the Sweet Briar History Category

Let’s see. . .

This has been one of those weeks that makes it very hard to choose a topic to post about! Let’s see: should I tell you about Molly Haskell’s visit to campus and lecture? After all, she’s one of our most distinguished alumnae and her new book is being very well reviewed . . . or perhaps an update on issues discussed at this fall’s Board meeting? But then my community update is posted here, if you’d care to read it. Or perhaps something about the meeting I just attended with government representatives such as Martha Kanter and Gene Sperling to discuss President Obama’s proposals for higher education? (Whatever your political leanings, I hope you’re following the discussion of these proposals: their implications are potentially very challenging for institutions like Sweet Briar and friends of higher education should be paying close attention.) Or maybe you’d like to hear about what fun it was to welcome nearly 50 families to campus on a gorgeous weekend for an Open House for prospective students?

A screen shot from Virtual Tusculum

A screen shot from Virtual Tusculum

Instead, though, I think I’ll point you to two  clever videos that have just been created by Sweet Briar’s Tusculum Institute. “Virtual” tours of Tusculum have just been posted on line: I really do encourage you to take a look. In these two short videos you can get a dynamic sense of what the family home of Indiana Fletcher Williams’ mother looked like. The digital images are interspersed with historical photographs that add color and dimension to the presentation. These videos are a great example of how technology can allow us to understand space and place in new ways; watching them, you really feel as though you’re moving through this historic building.

Several years ago, as many readers will recall, Sweet Briar acquired the Tusculum house and had it carefully dismantled, inventoried, and moved to campus for safe storage.

Tusculum in a photograph from the 1960s

Tusculum in a photograph from the 1960s

Our initial hope was to be able to secure funding to reconstruct it on campus. However, that did not prove to be feasible: we are now making the house available to any qualified organization or individual willing and able to reconstruct it in a historically sensitive manner. Proposals are currently being accepted and the call for proposals is available on line.

Sweet Briar takes its stewardship for this piece of history very seriously. Having preserved the elements of the building, repaired and restored them appropriately, and carefully organized and protected them in storage has been a valuable achievement. But we know that long-term storage is not good stewardship: Tusculum deserves to be reconstructed and used, to come back to life.

Until that happens, however, what fun it is to watch these videos and imagine it!


Pizza with New Students!

students house evening

We’re nearly at the end of this year’s Pizza with Parker parties, occasions on which I get to sit with new students, find out how things are going, and welcome them to Sweet Briar House with a tour. And, of course, eat pizza!

Coco joins in greeting students

Coco joins in greeting students

We talk about a number of things — their favorite (and sometimes least-favorite) courses so far, what has surprised them about their first few weeks in college, whether they miss their dogs or siblings or mother’s cooking, what they tell their friends at other schools about what it’s like at Sweet Briar, what they’re most looking forward to in coming weeks. . .

And each year they consider a specific question. This year, I asked what they value most about being here, on this campus, among these friends, taking these courses. It was a very intentional question. Media and public discussions obsessively question the “value” of higher education — as career preparation, in relation to tuition prices and student debt, as a priority for public funds. I thought it would be interesting to hear directly from students who have just made the choice to enroll what they value about the choice they made.

Here are some of the things they said:

“The opportunities to meet new people, challenge myself academically, and pursue career internships.”

“I value how the Honor Code is outlined and obeyed.”

“Being a person and not a number in the classroom! And being in a place where everything is centered around women and women first!”

“It is a huge thing for me because I have wanted to be here for six years.”

And of course, many specific programs and courses were mentioned — engineering, riding, music, pre-vet, creative writing, and many others. But above all, the theme that emerged was community, friendship, the welcoming and accepting nature of the campus, the investment that is made in every young woman who enrolls.

I generally end these evenings by offering those students who are interested a tour of the House. As they begin their Sweet Briar careers, learning a bit about the history of the place and the people who have so loved it helps students place their personal experience in the context of a much larger sweep of time and space. This year, the concept of “value” was especially relevant; the example of a woman who so valued education that she left the whole of her property so that more than a century later these young women could be here is as humbling as it is inspiring.

Beginning the tour at the House

Beginning the tour at the House

Student examining a letter by Martha Penn Taylor

Examining a letter by Martha Penn Taylor

All Saints, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos

It’s that time of year; autumn colors have faded, the ground is covered in crispy brown leaves, the community garden has been put to rights for the winter, the chill in the air has a cutting edge, there’s more gray than blue in the skies. It’s November on campus. Mid-terms have passed but there’s still a way to go until finals. The novelty of the semester has worn off and yet the end is not quite yet in sight. Thanksgiving break can’t get here soon enough.

This season has its own celebrations, marking the pivot of the year toward the dark, the cold, dormancy.

Last night, Chung Mungs took faculty and staff children trick-or-treating through the dorms and — of course! — Sweet Briar House. Rick and I are delighted to see the various ghouls, film characters, animals, and superheroes walk up through the Boxwood Circle to the front door.  Last night, I was particularly enchanted by a small lobster-in-arms. 

Trick-or-treating is the least of it. Today and tomorrow, the Sweet Briar Museum is offering a tour and program of ghost stories. “The program includes fictional and non-fictional accounts, such as “The Shadow Child,” which appeared in the very first Sweet Briar Magazine in 1909, “A Mid Summer Night’s Vision of Daisy’s Garden” from 1915, and a news story from 1928 titled “Novel Ghost Flits Far Ahead.”” And last Saturday there was a 5K “Zombie Run” on campus. This event was created by business students as a fundraiser for the Jennifer Hunter Yates Sarcoma Foundation. If you don’t know about zombie runs, they’re pretty much like any other 5K — just with zombies chasing you.

Photo from NPR on facebook

Some of our celebrations are thoughtful opportunities to reflect on the relationships and ties that connect the living and the dead. New Chaplain and Director of Student Spiritual Life Dori Baker held an all saint’s commemoration this week: participants were invited to bring memories of the saints (whether canonized or not) who have touched their own lives most deeply.

And later this afternoon the Cochran Library is sponsoring the 2nd annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. They’re collaborating with the student group Hermanas Unidas on this; there will be homemade Mexican food, face painting, and candy skulls to decorate. There will also be an altar on which participants will display photos of friends and family members who have passed away. (There’s an interesting explanation of the meaning of the altar pictured at left on NPR.)

As the darker and colder season closes in, the campus finds creative, fun, and meaningful ways to make sure Sweet Briar generates light and warmth.


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. . . .


Farewell to Jan Osinga

Photo Courtesy Lynchburg News Advance

One of the things a newcomer to Sweet Briar learns very quickly is what a marvelous part the Dairy played in the college’s history. It’s literally true that I’ve heard more stories about the cows, the yogurt, and dairy manager Jan Osinga than I can count.

Which made it particularly poignant to say farewell last week to Mr. Osinga, who passed away on February 28th. (His obituary is on line here.) Services were held on Saturday at his beloved Amherst Presbyterian Church. Friends and neighbors from Amherst and Sweet Briar came together to share stories of this remarkable man, console his family, and share in the music he so enjoyed.

A few years ago, a short interview with Mr. Osinga was aired on local television. You can see the video and read the story here, if you’d like to hear some of his memories in his own voice.

It was only in the last couple of years that I had a chance to come to know Jan, his wife Douwina, and their two Sweet Briar alumna daughters Nelly and Ieke. From the moment I arrievd I was curious to meet him: every time someone spoke to me of Jan Osinga, they did so with a big and affectionate grin. Once I had the chance to know him myself, I could certainly see why. I have rarely met anyone so vividly full of life. Jan Osinga loved the land and the College he served with such distinction, and Sweet Briar is a better place for it.


Just About My Favorite Holiday Gathering

The annual holiday luncheon for retirees is just about my favorite holiday gathering.

As wonderful as all the holiday parties are, there is something especially festive about spending time with people who have experienced so much of the College’s history. Yesterday, there was a particularly interesting thread of conversation, as the event took place on December 7th and several of those present had personal memories of Pearl Harbor Day to share. I found out, for example, that Biology Professor Margaret Simpson had been a child in Hawaii on Pearl Harbor Day and recalls everyone around her assuming it was a drill. . .

Here are some tidbits about the group that gathered yesterday:

  • Together, they represent more than 700 years of service to Sweet Briar.
  • Seven of their daughters have graduated from Sweet Briar, and one of those daughters is now a member of the Board of Directors.
  • Two of them have honored spouses with wonderful gifts to Sweet Briar — in one case an endowed concert series and in the other case a scholarship.
  • The longest serving individual present worked at Sweet Briar for 46 years.


When I called for those who had begun working at Sweet Briar in the 1950s to join me to receive applause and a poinsettia, there were six who rose.

Stories flow like water at this gathering of colleagues who have, in many cases, worked together since before our current students’ parents were born. It’s a privilege to hear them.

Ghost Tours!

ghostIf you’re going to be near campus next weekend, check out the Ghost Tours! Full information is available here. These campus tours are lots of fun and I encourage you to catch one if you can.

One of the first question student visitors to Sweet Briar House often ask me is whether Rick and I have had any Daisy encounters. My answer is always no, we haven’t, but I wouldn’t mind — I assume Daisy is a benevolent spirit who only means us well.

Sweet Briar is particularly rich in ghosts, but in my experience college campuses generally tend to cherish their ghosts and ghost stories. I’ve wondered why that is, and the best thought I have right now is that on college campuses the past is very palpable and highly valued. Our ghost stories are a way of assuring ourselves that the past is still with us, that our forebears are interested in our doings, that we remain connected with the energy that created us.

So Daisy and Miss Indie and the other ghosts at Sweet Briar are, so far as I’m concerned, welcome among us anytime.

San Francisco Alums

Yesterday afternoon in San Francisco I enjoyed tea at the Fairmount with a number of lively and interesting Sweet Briar alums, including ’09 grad Kaelyn Leake who is now doing some terrific work as a grad student in electrical engineering.

But perhaps the most impressive women there were from the classes of 1940 and 1941: Edie Bridges-Cone ’41 and Jacqueline Daley, ’40. Jacqueline says she may not come to campus for her 70th Reunion — although she was strongly encouraged to do so! — but she is a stalwart at the Sweet Briar gatherings in Vero Beach, Florida, and says she’d never miss one of those. Edie, on the other had, recently attended her Reunion and had the distinction of being the eldest alum there. She says she was treated like a queen all weekend.

What fun it was to sit with grads who span so many years of Sweet Briar history and to hear their stories, and to see the respect and interest that flowed between the generations. Younger alums asking elder ones for their stories, elder alums impressed with the opportunities and achievements their younger counterparts enjoy. . .

Preservation Virginia conference at Sweet Briar

Today and tomorrow Preservation Virginia is holding its annual conference on campus — sponsored jointly by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, headed by Sweet Briar alum Kathleen Kilpatrick, and the Tusculum Institute. (This is a picture of me and Kathleen at the opening session; Kathleen is on the left.)  Kathleen and Jo Ellen

In greeting the group, I outlined what I think is distinctive and important about preservation as practiced at Sweet Briar.  It’s a lot more than preserving buildings or displaying the decorative arts of bygone eras — although it certainly requires both of those. In the context of the liberal arts, preservation needs to be about creating sophisticated interpretations that connect preserved sites and objects to topics of interdisciplinary interest and current importance — topics like economic and environmental sustainability, race relations both under and after slavery, and women’s history.

The potential of digital technology to assist in preservation initiatives is another topic of significant interest. Whether in creating 3-D models of structures at various historical moments, or in compiling datasets that help make the case for investing in preservation, or in using GIS to explore alternative siting options, technology can support the work of preservationists.

Interdisciplinary and technologically sophisticated preservation initiatives provide wonderful opportunities for critical inquiry. Experts from across Virginia (and from several other states) have come to Sweet Briar to learn about “greening” preservation and to discuss how to approach preservation in the most environmentally and economically responsible manner possible. They are, in short, enjoying a day or two of professional development in the spirit of the liberal arts, in a beautifully preserved environment.

Can Cats See Ghosts?

A couple of folks have asked about the Parker/Manasa cats, since I mentioned them in a previous post.  Here is First Feline Bob, who as you can see is an easygoing sort.  (Kia and Ballou were less willing to cooperate with this afternoon’s photo op, but may appear in future posts.)

Bob At Rest

Bob At Rest

By now, I’ve heard from several people about the ghosts haunting campus — including Sweet Briar House.  (See this 2005 newspaper article if you haven’t heard about them!) I’m glad to report that no spectral presence has appeared to welcome me personally, at least not yet. Folklore suggests that cats can see ghosts:  perhaps Bob has seen Daisy? If so, he’s not telling.

Just last week I was going over the fall calendar of events at the House.  Of course, I plan to continue the tradition of “ghost tours” or “Daisy tours” this October.  Dates aren’t yet set, but I hope that many of you who are on campus will be able to participate.  In the mean time, I’ll try to get Bob to let me know if he spots anything, ah, ectoplasmic.