It’s the people — classmates and lifelong friends, professors and staff — who keep Katherine Powell Heller ’78 connected to Sweet Briar.
But lately the mother of two grown daughters says her thoughts are drawn to her college days for reasons she never expected.
“As our nation faces terrorist agendas, school shootings and similar acts of violence, and less-than-honest and -accountable government leaders, I have realized that there are times when I actually think back to the opportunity … to live in a safe and honorable community where integrity and common decency just were at Sweet Briar.
“My new favorite quote is, ‘Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you [by H. Jackson Brown Jr.].’ When I think of Sweet Briar, I think of exactly those things, and who wouldn’t want to be connected to that?”
Making sure such a haven remains available to young women is among the several reasons Heller makes giving to Sweet Briar a priority. It is also a commitment to her own parents, who, she says, placed her education and ability to be a contributing member to society above all else.
“Cliché or not, I do believe in the saying, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’ ” she says. “Sweet Briar — and my parents — gave me the foundation to be able to embrace a world of opportunities. Of course I received an excellent education and made lifelong friends, but the personal growth I achieved in the SBC environment is irreplaceable.”
She cites the ability to rise to leadership positions in a class about one-third the size of her high school class in Halifax, Va., and involvement as chair of the Judicial Committee for developing skills such as public speaking and being a good listener.
“Being willing to really listen with an unbiased ear is an important life skill. This becomes harder the older you get and I don’t mean due to deafness,” she says, laughing, adding it’s especially handy when you’re a mother.
Heller’s numerous honors as a student include the Emilie Watts McVea Scholarship and the all-College Penelope Lane Czarra Award for combined scholastic achievement, leadership and helping to improve student life at Sweet Briar. She earned her bachelor’s in biology and studio art after entering with the intention of going to medical school.
“I quickly decided on biology as an intended major and was very glad to be able to fit some art classes into my schedule for fun,” Heller says.
She added the dual major after family friends introduced her to the field of medical illustration. She studied art for a year at Pratt Institute and later earned her master’s from Johns Hopkins’ Art as Applied to Medicine program. Heller worked at university hospitals in Worchester, Mass., and in Cleveland, doing everything from illustrating textbooks and journal articles to graphic art for posters to sketching live procedures in the operating room.
After the family settled in Atlanta, where they are today, she freelanced for a time but became a full-time mom when her second daughter was born. The example Heller sets for her girls is part of why she and her husband support not only Sweet Briar, but also each of their alma maters and their daughters’ colleges.
“We fully appreciate the importance of regular annual donations to educational institutions, no matter what the sum. It builds a habit and reflects the loyalty and appreciation that we feel for what we received from being a part of the institution. … My husband works in an academic medical center and intimately knows the value of giving and its direct impact on the quality of education.”
In addition to yearly contributions through stock shares, they have included Sweet Briar in their estate planning. In reunion years, they have stepped up to the Fountain Society level. “We hope that we are instilling in our children the importance of philanthropy and giving back to the communities that have shaped us,” Heller says.
Fond memories of Sweet Briar, especially longstanding traditions such as lantern bearing, hitching post battles and impromptu Sweet Tone serenadings, play a role in Heller’s giving, too. And there were the routines of campus life — invitations to dinner from faculty members, “waiting in the Refec dinner line before the doors opened” and “watching Saturday Night Live, back when it was brilliantly funny, with roomies and friends, including our friend Jack Daniels.”
Neither is dorm life immune to the occasional surprise. One spring semester, Heller returned to her triple room in Randolph, which had its own bathroom, to find a note from her English major roommate.
“There is a dead mouse in the bathtub,” it read. “I have returned to Lynchburg until you (the biology major) get it out. Let me know when I can come back.”
“I wish I had kept that note!” she says.