1945 Sweet Briar graduate endows $3 million fund to support engineering program

Margaret “Peggy” Jones Wyllie always wanted to be an engineer, but when she entered college in 1941 pursuing that dream was nearly impossible. In those days, universities with engineering programs rarely admitted women and no women’s college in the country offered the degree. So in 1945, Wyllie graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry from Sweet Briar College.

Sixty-five years later, Sweet Briar is one of only two U.S. women’s colleges to offer an engineering degree. The program’s success has permitted Wyllie to revisit her childhood dream while expanding opportunities for Sweet Briar’s aspiring engineers of today. She and her husband, Malcolm Robert Jesse Wyllie, have given $3 million to Sweet Briar to create an endowment in support of the program.

In recognition of the gift, SBC Engineering will henceforth be known as the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program. It is the first named academic program in the College’s 109-year history.

Sweet Briar’s engineering curriculum was built over several years beginning in 2002, largely with $1.5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation. The first class of degree candidates was enrolled in 2005 and graduated last year.

The College offers a B.S. in engineering science and a B.A. in engineering management. The curriculum emphasizes experiential learning, design as a fundamental element of engineering, and creating solutions to human problems. The engineering science degree track is multidisciplinary, rooted in mechanical engineering and engineering design, with an emphasis on electrical and mechanical systems.

The B.A. option responds to the high demand among today’s technical companies for graduates with strong educational backgrounds in both management and technology. Fundamental science, math and engineering courses, combined with an emphasis on developing management skills and interconnections between the disciplines, are the core of the program.

The Wyllies, who met at The Johns Hopkins University where Peggy earned her master’s in chemistry, were early and generous supporters of engineering at Sweet Briar. They contributed substantially for laboratory renovations and equipment, computers and software from 2005 to 2007.

President Jo Ellen Parker recently invited the couple, who live near Charlottesville, to campus to attend a lecture, tour the department’s labs and machine shops, and meet with students, faculty and administrators.

“Peggy and Jesse Wyllie were impressed by the quality of Sweet Briar’s engineering students and faculty, by the mission of the program, and by the innovative curriculum,” Parker said.

“They appreciated the careful stewardship, which made effective and thoughtful use of their previous gifts and of National Science Foundation grants. But mostly, I think, they appreciate the importance of sending women engineers into today’s marketplace prepared to use their skills responsibly, sustainably and thoughtfully.”

SBC engineering director Hank Yochum also noted that the Wyllie’s gift validates what the College has done to develop a high-quality program.

“This endowment speaks to the success of the program and to our commitment to creating opportunities for women to become engineers that make a difference in the world,” Yochum said.

“The gift will help us provide even more opportunities for our students, including funds for additional state-of-the-art lab equipment and scholarships. It will also support community-based design courses, like last year’s collaboration with disabled workers at Lynchburg Sheltered Industries. That project resulted in a national workplace innovation award for design.”

Peggy and Jesse Wyllie live on their cattle farm in Troy, Va., where they moved after Jesse Wyllie’s retirement in 1982. They previously lived in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, and Texas, California and Pennsylvania during Wyllie’s long career as a research scientist and executive with Gulf Oil Corp.

He was president of Gulf Research and Development Co., then, successively, executive vice president, president and chairman of Gulf Oil Co. (Eastern Hemisphere). He also served as chairman of the Kuwait Oil Co.