Amherst County Day recalls past with an eye to the future

Katie Tomlin (left) and Tanya Hooper & Co. of Amherst hop aboard for a hayride during Sweet Briar’s Amherst County Day Saturday.
Katie Tomlin (left) and Tanya Hooper & Co. of Amherst hop aboard for a hayride during Sweet Briar’s Amherst County Day Saturday.

“Our campus is your campus,” Mary Pope Hutson ’83 said during the College’s first Amherst County Day in 42 years on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. She extended an ongoing invitation to local residents to take advantage of Sweet Briar’s trails and other offerings.

Hutson, Sweet Briar’s vice president for alumnae relations and development, spoke on behalf of President Phil Stone, who was unable to attend the event. She was the first of three officials, including Amherst Mayor Paul Kilgore and chair of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors John Marks, to give voice to the prevailing sentiment of the day: It is good to be a united community.

Hutson noted that Sweet Briar shares a history and culture with the town and county that predate the College’s founding in 1901. The revival of Amherst County Day — an ongoing event from 1922 to 1974, according to the New Era-Progress — celebrates and affirms that heritage, “for the past, present and future,” she said.

It’s not clear why Amherst County Day was discontinued, but the College’s near closing in 2015, which the county helped to avert, precipitated its return.

Originally, the board of supervisors planned to establish June 23 — the date a court approved the mediated settlement that kept the College open — as Sweet Briar Day. Last summer, President Stone responded by asking the county to move the date because the College is not in session in June. He proposed combining efforts to recognize a single day on the fourth Saturday in October.

As a consequence, students were on hand to volunteer as face painters and tour guides, in addition to checking out local eateries, businesses and services who exhibited at the event. Without them, Saturday wouldn’t have been complete for longtime residents such as Amanda Ramsey who recall students leading them through classroom buildings as children.

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Local businesses such as Fitzgerald Farms displayed or sold wares at Sweet Briar’s Amherst County.

“It was a day to remember. This campus was filled with people,” said Ramsey, who today is president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

Both Ramsey and Sweet Briar assistant director of alumnae relations and event organizer Donna Dodd ’15 remember jousting contests, too.

“I am so glad [Sweet Briar is] doing this,” Ramsey said.

Kilgore also spoke of “neat memories” as a kid visiting the campus on Amherst County Day, including a moon rock being brought in for display. The College and town may have taken each other for granted in recent decades, but that’s changing, he told the crowd in the quad.

“I didn’t know I’d be quoting an eighties rock song today, but you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” he said.

The attempted closing brought home the importance of the College to the economic and cultural life of the community. The county, especially the county attorney, Ellen Bowyer, played an integral role in saving Sweet Briar and the prosperity of both is today more intertwined than ever.

“Part of what we’re doing here is looking toward the future,” Kilgore said.

Marks, the board of supervisors chair, reiterated the message, reading from a June 2015 resolution stating the board “expresses its desire to consider ways in which the County can work collaboratively with the College to develop mutually beneficial strategies designed to help Amherst County and Sweet Briar College meet the needs of the communities they serve.”

Marks noted that Sweet Briar’s contributions came not only in its mission to educate women, but in the “people it drew into this county” who became part of its “social, artistic, cultural and civic” life. He recalled in particular former professors Judith Elkins and Gregory Armstrong, both of whom served on the board of supervisors. Elkins may have been the first woman on the board, he said.

Marks concluded his remarks talking about the fight to save Sweet Briar.

“I was present in the courtroom when Judge [James] Updike signed the settlement order. I admired the way that he handled the eruption in the courtroom that day,” he said with a smile, referring to the boisterous alumnae cheers that broke out.

As he spoke, he struggled with the papers he held against the gusty northwesterly wind that blew all day Saturday.

“I’d like to thank each of you who had a part that resulted in this headline,” he said, finally holding up the front page of the June 21, 2015, News & Advance.

It read: “DEAL SAVES SWEET BRIAR.”

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