Still safeguarding Sweet Briar’s treasures

| September 17, 2013

Budget sheets and building plans filled Peter Daniel’s Sweet Briar days.

Anne Gary Pannell impressed Peter Daniel from their first meeting. They saw eye-to-eye on certain things — chiefly, how to manage Sweet Briar’s finances.

“She was a conservative president,” he says, affirming that he means fiscally speaking. “But as we talked more and more, I was interested in how she saw education.”

Daniel was a young loan officer at a Richmond bank when Pannell telephoned him out of the blue in 1954. She asked to see him about interviewing for the job of the College’s treasurer. He agreed because the notion of working in higher education appealed to him.

Daniel smiles when he recalls scheduling their appointment for 9 a.m. Despite graduating from the University of Virginia, he didn’t realize how far she would have to drive.

“Most Virginia students know where Sweet Briar is, but not me because I was married,” he says, chuckling. “I wasn’t about to go to Sweet Briar.”

Lydia and Peter V. Daniel

He entered UVa to study economics in 1946 after a year at Dartmouth and three years in the Army Air Force. Meanwhile, he’d become smitten with Miss Lydia McLane Cruikshank of Alexandria. The relationship moved rapidly, he recalls, even as he earned his wings as a navigator at a base in Texas and completed additional training in New Mexico and Arizona.

“She was pretty. And talkative. Fun to be with … I don’t know, she seemed to be like ‘golly, let’s go again.’ So we went to the movies and that kind of thing. We got going that way. And we were married for 67 years. How ’bout that?”

Lydia passed away in August 2011. Later, Daniel says he misses her horribly.

With his wife’s blessing, Daniel took the job as treasurer and assistant to the president. He managed Sweet Briar’s finances until 1986, becoming vice president in 1971 and retiring with the title of vice president and treasurer emeritus.

There were challenges, starting that summer of 1954 as a terrible drought gripped the region. The Lower Lake, then the campus’ only water source, was both evaporating in the dry heat and draining away through a leaky dam. At his first opening convocation, he had to announce severe water restrictions, declaring mandatory “bathless” days. The students began calling him “Bad News Peter.”

In October, Hurricane Hazel brought relief until the dam could be fixed, but felled hundreds of trees and left the Refectory, the former dining hall, structurally unsound. Not long after, the College hosted a fundraiser attended by the president of U.S. Steel with his company’s stamp plainly visible on the raw beams temporarily installed to support the ceiling. To the administration’s great relief, Daniel recalls, it was not Bethlehem Steel.

As kindred as he and Pannell were, she could confound him, too. Insistent on a ship-shape campus when students arrived in the fall, she once demanded the woods along the entrance road be cleaned up — like Germany’s tidy forests — so they could stroll unencumbered by poison ivy and underbrush. He explained her desire to a trustee.

“He laughed,” Daniel says. “I laughed, too, except I had to go back and tell her what he said. … She was just an idealist. A wonderful idealist, but some things aren’t gonna get done.”

The Daniel family at McLivian.

But Peter Vivian Daniel had a reputation of his own.

He was a pillar who stood between the College’s endowment and anyone who wanted to spend it, says Paul Cronin, director emeritus of the riding program.

“I was hired for my equestrian skills, not my budgeting experience,” says Cronin, who was then a young former junior Navy officer. “Mr. Daniel supervised me closely and educated me. He was exactly like the captain on my last ship — high standards, didn’t suffer fools easily, and supportive.

“We became close friends later through beagling and his lovely Lydia. I learned to call him Peter. Throughout all of this, I served on some faculty committees that often had issues with the financial officer. Peter was tough, highly respected and vitally important to the success of the College. Peter listened, although he did not often yield. With distance and experience I would say it most often benefited SBC faculty.”

Daniel, too, remembers annoying and being annoyed by the faculty.

Nonetheless, he says, “We did fine. I love Sweet Briar and everything I did. I enjoyed going to work every day. The students were wonderful. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Daniel takes immense pride in operating “in the black” throughout his 32 years. He credits a good team that understood what the College was trying to accomplish. Of his own staff, he says he was careful to keep them informed and expected them to speak their minds.

He admits to occasionally losing his temper. Pat James, who worked for him from 1981 until his retirement, says he was exacting, but he was fair and honest, decisive and always acted with integrity.

Peter and Lydia Daniel raised and showed beagles.

“He loved Sweet Briar,” James says. “He was going to do the right thing for Sweet Briar.”

Every year Daniel invited his staff to McLivian, the farm he and Lydia owned on the Tye River, where his warmth and hospitality were most on display.

“They made us feel so special,” James remembers, noting the couple’s devotion to one another was also evident. “You could feel it and see it between him and Lydia.”

Daniel, a father of two boys, Peter and Dabney, also made the students on the diving team he coached for several years feel special. Jill Steenhuis ’80, who’d had an unhappy freshman year, says her life at Sweet Briar changed once she joined the team.

“He laughed at all my stories and it made me feel good. As I got better at diving, I think I became Peter’s top beagle,” Steenhuis says, a reference to the dogs he and Lydia raised and showed for many years.

“He was and still is a wonderfully positive person and he believed in me. I respected him and in the end, I think [we were] close to a father-daughter relationship.”

Aside from their beloved beagles, the Daniels shared a love of art and Lydia served on the Sweet Briar Friends of Art board. They were faithful FOA members for years. His appreciation for art deepened during his retirement when, at his wife’s urging, Daniel took art history and painting classes with Professor Lauren Oliver. He became quite good. Several of his landscapes in oil — many of them scenes of McLivian — hang on his walls.

Detail from one of Peter Daniel’s oil paintings. Many of his works depict scenes from his farm on the Tye River.

A consistent donor since he was an active employee, Daniel belongs to the Silver Rose Society and recently gave at the Column Society level. The most recent gift covered the cost of renovating Pannell 012, making it one of the latest classrooms across campus to receive new furnishings, fixtures and state-of-the-art technology for today’s teaching and learning environments. He also previously funded an air quality analysis of the building as part of a review of its maintenance needs.

Toward the end of his career, Daniel oversaw the 1985 conversion of the Refectory, originally built in 1906, to the Anne Gary Pannell Center. Today it houses the College’s permanent art collection, main gallery, classrooms and faculty offices for the art history department.

During his tenure he managed more than a dozen major construction and infrastructure projects. The Pannell Center remains close to his heart. He knows that to maintain it in accordance with the best practices standards of the museum profession and as a place of learning, others need to love it, too.

To those who care about the arts, he says, “Show your interest. Ask questions about why things can’t be done. Be interested enough to give money, as well as to speak to others about how important it is.”

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Alumnae and Development, Art Galleries, Art History, Arts Management, Uncategorized