Sweet Briar College Reunion 2015: Girls Quit…Women Fight (with words from President Emily Watts McVea in 1928)

In 1928 at the Founder’s Day Exercises of Sweet Briar College, President Emily Watts McVea wrote prayers for the occasion:

O God, lift my soul to your mountaintops and grant that from their summits my eyes may see the true vision and purpose in my life.

86 years later, President McVea’s words were repurposed for a very different kind of service.  On Saturday of reunion weekend, 2015, Sweet Briar College was doing the very opposite of what President McVea intended by her prayers.   I am pretty sure she would not appreciate her words being used in a service intended as the College’s last.  In tribute to her, I honor her words and others from the 2015 Service of Remembrance  along with my own reflections on reunion….

On Monument Hill, the highest spot on Sweet Briar’s 3,000 acres, alumnae sat and stood in a somber circle around the Fletcher family plot for a Service of Remembrance — intended to be the final service at Sweet Briar College.   Alumnae mourning their College co-mingled with those fighting for its future.  Each heard a different message.  Those quitting heard words of ending, closure and death..  Those fighting heard words of hope, continuance and resurrection..

O God, the source of strength, you are my strength.  In you I find power for the real work of my life.  No difficulties can overwhelm me, no task can frighten me, for I know that abiding in your, as my days are, so shall my strength be.

Attending a reunion is always a special time.   Returning to a special place of any kind brings about a sense of anticipation.  For graduates of Sweet Briar College, reunion is like coming home.

Turning off the driveway from Route 29, a long tree-lined driveway winds its way towards campus.  Bright pink and green signs welcoming alumnae lined the route.  “Welcome Alumnae”, “We’ve Been Waiting for You”.  Within hours, banners of protest were hung across campus including the entrance sign adding meaningful words…

Driving onto campus the signs read "Welcome Alumnae" and another "We've been waiting for you..."
Driving onto campus the signs read “Welcome Alumnae” and another “We’ve been waiting for you…”

This reunion promised to be an epic one.  On March 3, the President and Board announcing their intention to close the College declaring the 2015 commencement would be its last and that reunion would be perhaps the final one as well.  Since then, Sweet Briar has divided itself — emotionally, legally, physicially — between those who wish to quit and those who are fighting closure.

"Girls Quit, Women Fight" banner hung outside Benedict Hall at Sweet Briar College, the night of what the College declared "it's final reunion".
“Girls Quit, Women Fight” banner hung outside Benedict Hall at Sweet Briar College, the night of what the College declared “it’s final reunion”.

While some people heard the news and quietly accepted it – quitting. Others immediately organized – fighting.

Some came to campus with a sense of resignation.  You could tell these people throughout the weekend.  They walked through as if they were seeing something for the last time.  Their hands paused on banisters touched many times.  They took photos with familiar landmarks, sometimes shaking their head or shedding a tear.  When I found myself in conversations with them, they used phrases like “it’s sad”, “inevitable…”; “too bad…”

O God, you Infinite Calm, let me rest in your peace.  Quiet the anxieties of my life; hush the agitation of my heart; still the busy flutter of unnecessary and futile activity.  In calm strength, let me pursue my daily work resting on your sure promise.  Lead me beside still waters of peace through green valleys of love and hope.

Others came to campus as fighters.  They, too, took in their campus in a different way.  These fighters; however, did not approach each set of friends or venues as a “last time” or a goodbye.  Rather, they savored campus protectively and thoroughly.  You could see them gaze over a familiar landscape with a sense of purpose.  Some chose not to come to campus at all because they didn’t wish to put a single penny into the accounts of those not committed to the future.

Taking in campus with the future in mind.
Taking in campus with the future in mind.

O Almighty God, source of knowledge, lover of wisdom, we ask your blessing this day on the community, past and present, of Sweet Briar College.  Grant to us earned purpose, the strength to persevere, and a steadfast faith in the value of human life.  We realize that we are all scholars and learners together, searching diligently for truth.

The division in the 2015 Reunion for Sweet Briar is one I hope we will never repeat.  While some attended events on campus, others gathered off campus.  The majority of my class attended off-campus events which were forward-looking and hopeful.

My Class of 1988, normally very active had just two people for the opening events.  During the picnic, I had the unsettling experience of meeting several people resigned to closure of the College including the sister-in-law of the current President who said she is taking “no position”.   Thankfully, my classmates were all actively working for the future.

The few and proud members of the Class of 1988 at the opening picnic.
The few and proud members of the Class of 1988 at the opening picnic.

May we rejoice in our opportunities to play, in our friendships, and in all the joys experienced….

Class of 1988 classmates - one all the way from Singapore -- attended the alternative event.
Class of 1988 classmates – one all the way from Singapore — attended the alternative event.

Yes, this would be a reunion like no other…

The place that felt the most home-like reunion weekend was faculty row.  The Whitcombs, Claudia Chang – homes I visited as a student were open and united with determination for Sweet Briar.

Saturday morning my husband and I visited downtown Lynchburg, a thriving Farmer’s Market unfolded along several blocks.  Unique food trucks from cider donuts to fish tacos to bagels and fresh juice lined Main Street.  We found a delicious latte and breakfast sandwich at the White Tavern.  Lynchburg teemed with life:  Children, college-age groups, senior citizens.  Pianos donated by community members were tucked into storefronts decorated with whimsical and meaningful designs.  I watched a woman play a beautiful Bach piece while her son nodded slowly, transfixed.  It was only after enjoying the music for several minutes that I realized the piano was designed by a Sweet Briar College student.

Above all, grant us through our work and all our experience to understand more clearly your beauty, your harmony, and your truth.

This is a marvelous College town.  Randolph College, Lynchburg College, Liberty University and Sweet Briar College compliment strong businesses and a vibrant arts scene.  Everywhere we went there were references to Sweet Briar from signs in windows of support to business cards to fellow alumnae walking through town.

Leaving Lynchburg, we drove the business route back to campus along the road I remembered.  The towns of Madison Heights, Monroe and Amherst are clearly stronger than when I attended College from 1984-1988.  National chains mixed with family-owned business of all kinds unfolded along Route 29.  Even small florist shops were built with Georgian architecture.  This is Virginia charm at its best.

Before returning to campus, I met up with a group I had only previously known by phone and email (daily!) – the Major Gift Task Force members.  We planned to meet up at one of the alternative events.  It turned out to be at a lovely vineyard, Rebec, founded by the father of long-time dance faculty at Sweet Briar, Ella Magruder.   While hundreds of alumnae flowed into the event, our group met each other (many for the first time only knowing each other previously through phone calls) and discussed the importance of this weekend for a final push for giving. We were blessed by Ella Magruder stopping by to tell us how much she and the faculty appreciate the group’s efforts.

The saving Sweet Briar Major Gift Task Force meets for the first time in person.
The saving Sweet Briar Major Gift Task Force meets for the first time in person.

Endure us with abounding enthusiasm for real greatness, respect for the valuable accomplishments of the past, and a never failing belief in the possibilities of human attainment.

Back on campus, it was time for the hike to Monument Hill.  The skies were clear with temperatures climbing into the 90s.  We hiked ahead of the crowd in order to look back.

Video: Bagpiper leads walkers to Monument Hill.

From the beauty of this campus may we learn to love and understand beauty everywhere.

Once on Monument Hill, it was back to the surreal dichotomy of quitters and fighters.  It began with an invocation, “For what may be the last time together….” My husband leaned over to me and whispered, “Is this a funeral???” “NO!”, I whispered.

Endure us with abounding enthusiasm for real greatness, respect for the valuable accomplishments of the past, and a never failing belief in the possibilities of human attainment.

It was a very nice service.  It was very polite.  It was very “Sweet Briar”.  No.  One.  Said.  A. Thing.  I couldn’t help myself.  As the Chaplain (who isn’t a Chaplain since the College hasn’t funded a Chaplain for quiet a while and we have a very kind local Pastor helping) said his final “Amen”,I must admit I did YELL, “SAVE SWEET BRIAR” to which the majority of the crowd responded with a cheer :).

It felt good to cheer and voice our intention at a “pep rally” of sorts.  At 8:15pm, while the sun was setting, alumnae came from both ends of campus for a group photo.  We sang the “Holla, holla” cheer and we shouted, “WE WILL SAVE SWEET BRIAR!” Having been on Monument Hill that day and seeing Daisy’s arm uplifted, it occurred to me that it would be a meaningful tribute to lift our arms like she does.  After all, we ARE the perpetual memorial of Daisy that Indiana Fletcher Williams intended.

Click here to view the video of our salute to Daisy.

Even the official events divided those who were on campus.  One event was held in the Field House, the other in the conference center.  Between the two, those who are working to save Sweet Briar met in the quad for a photo together.  Later, Claudia Chang, a beloved Anthropology professor (and leader of the faculty suit) hosted a party until the wee hours of the morning.

Endure us with abounding enthusiasm for real greatness, respect for the valuable accomplishments of the past, and a never failing belief in the possibilities of human attainment.

I know I will never be a quitter for Sweet Briar.  I will fight to the end alongside women from many generations united to save a place we love.

Above all, grant us through our work and all our experiences to understand more clearly your beauty, your harmony, and your truth.

As alumnae leave Sweet Briar College this weekend, in just a few days they face two important moments.  Important legal challenges will be in court, including the Virginia Supreme Court.

President McVea’s words are a comfort in these times:

Winds of God, blow through my soul with healing and invigorating power.  Enliven my desire for righteousness; cleanse me from self-seeking, from moodiness, from indifference.

Winds of God, bear my soul on the quiet breezes of the morning, or on the wings of the hurricane.  In the calm of the storm, may I find You, the Star of my soul.

Amen

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3 thoughts on “Sweet Briar College Reunion 2015: Girls Quit…Women Fight (with words from President Emily Watts McVea in 1928)”

  1. thank you for sharing. The article and the pictures brought tears to my eyes. Your commentary on the division between those who believe that Sweet Briar can be saved and those who believe they’re saying a final goodbye is so poignant.

  2. I, too, was moved by the weekend. And I, too, was astounded to hear those who felt powerless to fight! I am NOT willing to let a travesty like this happen! NEVER!

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