Rising 8.25.15 … Students Flock back to Sweet Briar College

Flamingos "flock" at the University of Wisconsin Madison, voted to be the official "state bird".
Flamingos “flock” at the University of Wisconsin Madison, voted to be the official “state bird”.

“Today is the Day of the SBC Phoenix” — headline in the Lynchburg News and Advance.

The Lynchburg News and Advance beat me to it – the phoenix image, that is.  I already had a post written for today, but I hadn’t found the right phoenix image. Since a phoenix is not a real bird, the only pictures of phoenix are of Chinese kites or strange tattoos.   In my search for a phoenix image, I came upon the amazing history of the pink flamingos most of us recognize.   It turns out, these birds have something in common with Sweet Briar College.

The original "pink perfection" flamingos were sold as a pair - one looking down and the other boldly forward.
The original “pink perfection” flamingos were sold as a pair (photo: Smithsonian Magazine)

The original designer of the pink flamingo, Don Featherstone, sold them as a pair.  One was looking towards the ground and the other looked boldly forward.  Now you’re seeing where I get the flamingo image, right?  These two images reminded me of the state of Sweet Briar both in March of this year and today.

March 3, 2015

flamingos dead

On March 3, 2015, the President and Board of Sweet Briar College hung their heads in defeat and announced the College would close on August 25, 2015.  They laid out plans for student “teach outs” at other colleges, gave termination notices to faculty and staff and began a purging.  They cited a lack of interest, competition and crushing financial challenges.  They said, “No one chooses a woman’s college anymore.”

Union Products, the manufacturer of the “perfection in pink” flamingos made them for over 50 years, but in 2007 announced the factory would be forever closing.  They cited competition, lack of interest, financial challenges,  and said, “No one buys these anymore”.   Sound familiar?

Determined flamingo
Determined flamingo

Looking Ahead

Fortunately for the legacy of Sweet Briar College, there were some alumnae who looked boldly forward.  They saw a different future and it wasn’t going to be closing.  They honored the vision of the founder and protected her original intent through legal battles which ultimately were successful in the Virginia Supreme Court.  Settlement talks facilitated by the Attorney General allowed for a path forward.  Generous alumnae from all over the world flocked together to save Sweet Briar.

Flamingos flock together.
Flamingos flock together.

Fortune and generosity saved the “pink perfection” flamingos from extinction.  Cado, in New York, bought the company and returned the flamingos to production.   The Smithsonian magazine in an article about the iconic lawn ornament said, “But then, phoenixlike, the flamingo rose from its ashes (or rather, from its pool of molten plastic….”  People began having “flocking” fundraisers, college students used them in dorm rooms.  A market reemerged.   Don Featherstone even won an art prize for his design.

August 25, 2015

Today, August 25, 2015, the very day when the College was to close, students flock back to Sweet Briar College.  There are faculty, staff, community members and alumnae there to welcome them.  There are inspiring banners, welcome home signs, special treats and lots of pink and green.

Students welcomed home. Photo credit: Becky Johnston Lambert
Students welcomed home. Photo credit: Becky Johnston Lambert

Sweet Briar already has a mascot, a Vixen.  We didn’t have a Vixen in a suit when I was there, but I do find her very cute.  Seeing all that has been accomplished since March, 2015, Sweet Briar is deserving of the “Phoenix” symbol — a bird that rose from the ashes.   Given that it is hard to find a living phoenix or even a sculpted one, I think the story of the “pink perfection flamingo” also rising “phoenixlike” provides some inspiration for a mascot for the fight to save Sweet Briar.

I will never look at a pair of pink flamingos in the same way again.  Pink perfection indeed!

Flamingo in flight (image: National Geographic)
Flamingo in flight (image: National Geographic)

Story addendum – several people have shared with me that the late Jennifer Crispen, beloved coach and mentor, had flamingos in her yard at Sweet Briar.  They were both amusing and some said a silent form of protest (“Sweet Briar is more garden club than lawn ornament”).  Professor Alix Ingber sent me this photo.

Flamingos on the lawn of the late Jennifer Crispen.
Flamingos on the lawn of the late Jennifer Crispen.

Resources:

“History of the Pink Flamingo”  Smithsonian Magazine

Original Don Featherstone Pink Flamingo

Sweet Briar College Giving

SAVED! This photo was taken of me from a crowd that assembled during "the last" Reunion for a rousing cheer for the future.
SAVED! This photo was taken of me from a crowd that assembled during “the last” Reunion for a rousing cheer for the future.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement. She raises funds for Saving Sweet Briar, a charitable organization committed to the future of the College  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

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