1945 alumna who endowed Wyllie Engineering Program has died

The Sweet Briar alumna for whom the College’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program is named has died. “Peggy” Wyllie passed away Wednesday, July 13, 2016, at her residence in Troy, Va. She was 92.

When Wyllie entered college in 1941, her dream of being an engineer seemed beyond her reach. In those days, universities with engineering programs rarely admitted women and no women’s college in the country offered the degree.

Peggy Wyllie Today, there are only two, and Sweet Briar is one of them.

In 2010, the College announced that, Wyllie and her husband, the late Malcolm Robert “Jesse” Wyllie, had given Sweet Briar $3 million to endow a fund to support the then 5-year-old program. In recognition of the gift, it became the College’s first named academic program. Peggy Wyllie’s legacy is that it continues to thrive.

The ABET-accredited Bachelor of Science degree in engineering helps distinguish Sweet Briar among small liberal arts colleges. It also allows the College to contribute to nationwide efforts to increase participation of women and other minorities in STEM fields through outreach such as the Explore Engineering camps for high school girls.

Wyllie director Hank Yochum, a professor of physics and engineering, says he could “go on and on” about what the gift to name the program has meant to Sweet Briar engineering.

“It’s had a dramatic impact on our success,” he said. “Earnings from the Wyllie endowment provide scholarships to help attract talented engineering students, help purchase equipment to keep our students working with the newest technology, and support our Explore Engineering outreach events for high school women.”

As to the endowment’s impact on bringing more women into the field, he’s emphatic about that, too.

“I strongly believe the Wyllies’ gift has helped increase the number of women in engineering careers,” Yochum said.

Peggy Wyllie, born Feb. 27, 1924, in Charleston, W.Va., to Claude and Margaret Jones, decided to major in chemistry at Sweet Briar. She then earned a master’s in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, where she met Jesse. She was doing post-graduate work in a lab across from his, according to an obituary in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress.

The two married in 1947. Jesse Wyllie went to work for Gulf Research and Development Co. in Pittsburgh, where he eventually became president. They bought a small Pennsylvania farm and raised their family while Peggy pursued interests in horseback riding and another passion she shared with her husband: auto racing. She raced in the 1950s and 1960s, then continued working on Jesse’s pit crew, according to the obituary.

Jessie Wyllie’s career as a scientist and executive in the oil industry took them to England, the Middle East, Texas and California before his retirement in 1978. They bought Cumber Farm in Fluvanna County, where they raised Angus cattle and boarded horses. A lifelong equestrian, Peggy Wyllie told Virginia Business magazine in 2010 that she continued to ride until she was 75.

She is survived by her son, Ashton Robert Jesse Wyllie, and daughter, Peta Jean Wyllie.

In addition to Sweet Briar, Wyllie also supported a number of organizations, including Martha Jefferson Hospital and the Charlottesville Senior Center.

The Wyllies’ endowment wasn’t their first gift to Sweet Briar engineering: From 2005 to 2007, they contributed substantially to the nascent program for laboratory renovations, equipment, computers and software.

Peggy Wyllie had wanted to be an engineer like her father, but felt denied by the circumstances of her day. At 86, she gave Sweet Briar $3 million to create opportunities for women that she didn’t have.

Because of her, Sweet Briar continues to offer young women who are interested in engineering, math and science another choice for pursuing their own dreams.