“Without understanding the beginnings, we can’t truly understand where we are,” said Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo, getting right to the point of Founders’ Day.
She spoke to students, faculty, staff and alumnae gathered Friday, Sept. 22, in Murchison Lane Auditorium to observe the College’s annual rite. Founders’ Day is one of Sweet Briar’s cherished traditions to honor Indiana Fletcher Williams and her husband, James Henry Williams, who established the College as a perpetual memorial to their daughter, Daisy.
Woo noted that beginnings often determine where one is going. In the case of Sweet Briar, a grieving couple desired to establish a school that would prepare young women to be “useful members of society.”
“In that sense today is an auspicious day where we reflect upon the past, where we’ve been, where we are and think clearly and historically about where we need to be, so that we make this school what it was always meant to be and more,” Woo said.
Teresa Tomlinson ’87, chairwoman of the board of directors, also addressed the convocation. She spoke of the contributions of those assembled to Sweet Briar’s ongoing story, leaving no one out — starting with Woo, who was celebrating not only her first Founders’ Day at Sweet Briar, but her inauguration as the College’s 13th president.
Calling the faculty the “best of the best,” she noted their remarkable love for teaching and their students. She thanked the staff, pointing out the work that goes into producing campus events — printed programs and tables of food don’t just “magically appear,” she said. She commended the students’ courage, energy and potential that keep the College driving forward.
She also acknowledged the alumnae who tirelessly support their alma mater, introducing one in particular: Helen Murchison Lane ’46, for whom the auditorium is named. Lane stood to be recognized to thunderous applause and cheering.
“We have a real family here and that today is what we celebrate as well as the history that we have been given,” Tomlinson said.
The Williamses had a bold vision to educate and empower women at a time and place when such opportunities were few. That’s changed over the past 40 years, Tomlinson said, yet many — like she did in 1984 — choose Sweet Briar.
“Young women thrive here; we turn out to be competent women who change the world. So let’s remember Indiana Fletcher Williams, her husband and Daisy.
“Their journey has been fulfilled. We continue the boldness of their vision and celebrate the bold story we can help weave. And yes, her vision is as relevant today as it has ever been.”
Tomlinson was followed at the podium by Dean of the College Rob Granger, who presented this year’s academic and College awards to students.
Lynn Rainville, director of Sweet Briar’s Tusculum Institute and a research professor of the humanities, gave a brief slide presentation titled “Two Centuries of Grit: Celebrating Our Founders.”
Rainville noted that Indiana is only the most recognizable of the College’s founders and briefly surveyed the stories of many others without whom there would not be a Sweet Briar. We know many of them, such as Mary K. Benedict, the first president, and Indiana’s father, Elijah Fletcher, and her husband.
Others, she said, stood in the shadows of history but were equally important: members of the enslaved community and their descendants. They labored on the plantation and made it profitable. Later, some of them literally helped build it, brick by brick.
“In the 20th century, dozens of the very first employees of this College, the earliest staff members, were both the formerly enslaved individuals and the children and grandchildren of individuals who had been enslaved here,” Rainville said.
“Some names you would recognize today because descendants of this community are still here in the community or working for the College,” she said, noting the education building is named for Dorothy Sales, a longtime employee.
Following convocation every year, a bagpiper leads the way as the assembly processes behind the president to the gravesite of the founding family on Monument Hill. There, it is tradition that students — seniors wearing their academic robes for the first time and first-years, sophomores and juniors dressed in white — lay daisies at the foot of Daisy’s grave.
As President Woo noted in her remarks at the gravesite, the gesture symbolizes one of the few directives the Williams family placed upon Sweet Briar’s trustees: that it maintain in good repair the cemetery on Monument Hill forever. The cemetery is an interesting place, she said — and one she visits regularly — because of its connection to the campus, which is visible from the hill.
Woo said that while Sweet Briar was founded upon grief, it was also founded upon hope. Indiana and James were creating a future, not for Daisy but for other young women.
“It is unusual for a college to be the keeper of graveyards,” Woo said, “but because we know the connection, we are gratified to be the keepers of graves and the keepers of hope.”