When Dee Branch Oliver’s husband, Johnnie, died suddenly at a young age, her family was not prepared — despite their years together working at H.D. Oliver, the funeral home business his family has operated in Virginia Beach since the Civil War. Yet there she was, widowed, with three girls, ages 15, 12 and 11. She couldn’t even think what to write in his obituary.
That’s one of the things she now tells people they should do for themselves while they are still alive. It’s a lesson she took away from navigating the shock, grief and the work of unexpectedly managing affairs after a spouse’s death. She had to learn through doing, and soon began scribbling down tips for families at the funeral home, then blogging about her experiences for the website Changing Seasons.
Last summer, she published “Going Out In Style: How to Make a Graceful Exit and Survive the Loss of the One you Love” based on the blogs. The slim volume is a “lighthearted story on how we, the ‘funeral professionals,’ didn’t have our act together,” she says.
Although Oliver has a degree in art education from Virginia Wesleyan, after Johnnie died in 2007, she returned to school for her mortuary science degree and is a licensed funeral director.
Today, she also does speaking engagements, is completing a memoir and serves on the Virginia Beach planning commission.
She also is an enthusiastic supporter of Sweet Briar, with two of her daughters, Jacquie ’14 and Madison ’17, attending. Since Jacquie’s first year, Oliver has served on the Parent Steering Committee raising money for the Annual Fund. Her youngest, Aven, will attend Randolph-Macon College in the fall — but only because Sweet Briar doesn’t have a golf team, she says.
Jacquie will receive her B.S. in psychology in May. She plans to certify as an EMT this summer and will apply to the physician assistant program at Eastern Virginia Medical School. A Chung Mung (and current president), BAM and Psi Chi psychology honor society member, she, too, actively supports the College’s fundraising, serving on the Senior Class Campaign Committee.
Madison hasn’t declared her major yet, but plans to earn her degree in business and minor in psychology.
We wanted to know how Sweet Briar came to mean so much to the Oliver family, and why they give back. Here is what Dee told us.
How did you learn about Sweet Briar? Why did Jacqueline and Madison decide to attend the College?
I have so many wonderful friends who live in my neighborhood who graduated from SBC. I am always amazed by their character, intelligence, strength and successes as women. I wanted that same experience and opportunity for my girls.
Both of my daughters loved the school as soon as they stepped onto the campus. It is such a warm and welcoming place. Everyone had time to stop and speak to us, answering any and all questions that we may have had. The campus is so breathtaking, with its beautiful rolling hills, lake and horse pastures.
What have their experiences been like?
Both girls love all the aspects and benefits of the small school structure. They appreciate that they are able to have that one-on-one relationship with their professors, who get to know the students personally and can guide them towards a major in which they will be successful and that they will find rewarding.
How would you describe your experiences as a Sweet Briar mom?
I was so worried about sending my girls off to college, mostly because their dad was no longer around to “help save the day” should something go awry.
I love that SBC is so caring and in touch with each of its students. I have never once worried about my daughters’ wellbeing while they’re away from home.
As a parent, why is giving to Sweet Briar important to you?
It gives me great pleasure to know my money is helping shape and develop the students of Sweet Briar. I think it is such an important role for parents to support the school in this way.
My contribution to the school is my way of paying it back, not so much monetarily, but in the only way that I can, to support it for what it has done for me. I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth in the investment Sweet Briar has made in my children and I want to be able to help pass that legacy on to future parents and students who will come after us.
I’ve got two really strong, self-confident young women coming out of that school. I did the first part raising them, but Sweet Briar finished the back end for me and did a helluva job.
When you contribute to Annual Giving, there are options to designate the program or programs you wish to support. Do you use that option and, if so, why?
I have never chosen to direct where my money will go. I prefer for the school to decide where they want it and need it the most.
How did you get involved with the Parent Steering Committee? What are your responsibilities?
Sally Kitchin [’76] directed me to it. We make phone calls to other parents or parents of alumnae and do mailings to raise money [for Annual Giving].
What do you tell parents about why it is important to support Annual Giving?
We do talk some about how Annual Giving keeps the College operating and how critical every donation is, but I focus on what Sweet Briar does for its students and how we can support that. As parents, we can’t teach classes or mow the grass. What we can do is reinvest in the school for all the students that come after ours.
What’s your greatest wish for your children? Do you think Sweet Briar is helping it come true?
My greatest wish for my girls? I think that would be for them to be content and filled with joy, continually striving to reach the goals that they have set forth for themselves. I believe their futures have a solid foundation on which they can compete equally, if not better, against any competition that arises. Sweet Briar has prepared them by building their confidence, and it has taken such care to guide and direct my girls in the direction they dreamed of going. SBC, I believe, has a “you can do it” attitude with all of its students. If they desire it in their hearts, the faculty has the gift and the ability to make it happen.
How do you think your husband’s death shaped you and your daughters? How did you and they cope?
My girls have a strength and fortitude that wasn’t there before, and they are filled with qualities like grace and mercy. They have been gifted with an understanding that, I think, extends beyond their years; they know what is important, what really matters. None of which would have happened if our lives hadn’t taken the twist and turns that came with Johnnie’s death. As for me, well, I have always understood that life is a gift and a blessing — after all, I am a funeral director.
What do you all do for fun?
We love to hang out at the beach, spend time with my dad and our close friends. We enjoy playing tennis and working out at the gym. We are a house filled with girls, which is probably why we all love SBC so much.
It really is like a home away from home.