A half decade of sweet work

Sweet Briar alumnae work on shrubbery around campusThis year, the College’s new tradition of Sweet Work Weeks marked its fifth year and in that relatively short period of time, the annual event has become almost as big as Reunion weekend. Participants paint, weed, mulch and more — all to welcome students home for a new academic year. Of course, it’s about more than just work. It’s also an opportunity for alumnae of different generations to get to know each other in a meaningful way. We are so grateful for the hard work of all of our amazing alumnae that we wanted to take a moment to honor some of the women — and some husbands — who have become regular attendees at Sweet Work Weeks. And thanks to Jane Dure ’82 for writing the story!

Kathy Pegues ’71 and husband John marked their 42nd wedding anniversary on Aug. 13. They celebrated the day where they had celebrated their past four anniversaries: on campus at Sweet Work Weeks. That makes Kathy and John five- year veterans of the idea put into action by Debbie Thurman ’76 and Jen Phelps Staton ’02 mere weeks after Phil Stone stepped foot on campus in the summer of 2015.

“We heard about alumnae going to campus, to get it ready for the students, and we decided to go,” Kathy says about the first Sweet Work Weeks. “We are in Debbie and Jen’s debt for getting everything started, for this thing that has become something big.”

That Kathy would “decide to go” is in her SBC DNA — she has served the College and the alumnae as a member of the board, the alumnae board and the campaign planning committee. She is currently her class’s co-president. She worked as a volunteer leader of Sweet Work Weeks for its third and fourth years, and after the Alumnae Alliance created a Sweet Work Weeks working group to organize and run the projects each year, she volunteered to lead the working group as a co-chair.

John is no stranger to the College. John, a retired school administrator, John first med Kathy, a retired teacher, on campus, on the first floor of Manson when it was the Information Center. John went out with Kathy’s roommate while Kathy went out with John’s UVa roommate. And John and Kathy, who live in Warrenton, are also SBC parents, of Emily Pegues ’00.

According to Kathy, the first year of Sweet Work Weeks was a little free-form, but everyone was passionate, and it was all hands on deck.

“Reclaiming the Vixen Den for the students was one of the big projects that first year. Also getting Sweet Briar House ready for Phil Stone,” says Kathy. “Some 50 people did touch-up painting, washed windows, polished furniture, cleaned floors, set out fresh flowers and then we left notes all over the house for Phil. The house looked good, smelled good; it was welcoming.”

John says, “I did all sorts of things. Someone found several teak benches in one of the old barns that used to be around campus. We power-washed them and covered them with teak oil, and then replaced them around campus. I remember doing some weeding with Karen Levy ’86 and An alumna poses while painting a hallwayAnn Gateley ’70, painting wood at the [Conference Center] and rebuilding a pilaster at the admissions office.”

Over the years, Kathy’s favorite project has been working in Daisy’s Garden, but this year, she got the most satisfaction working in the Bloy Memorial Garden, behind Memorial Chapel. “The beds were full of crabgrass covering the existing plants, and some of the bushes had died,” Kathy says. “We removed all of that and mulched. Dang, it looked beautiful.”

“Painting is the most satisfying,” John says, “but I guess I am known for the bamboo. The first year, the bamboo was blocking the back exit to the Vixen Den. I think I’ve worked on the bamboo every year. When we arrived this summer, the bamboo was falling over the Sweet Briar Drive. We cut it back to the ground, and where there was a one-foot swath between the bamboo and the curb is now a two- foot swath.”

After her years as a volunteer leader and now co-chairing the Sweet Work Weeks working group with Vikki Schroeder ’87, Kathy is set on keeping Sweet Work Weeks running smoothly and improving the experience for alumnae and friends of the College. “We have learned over the years how to use strategically the volunteers we have,” she says. “For example, Erin East ’00 and Kris Harris ’99 will do anything well, but they like to mulch. Though there were a few glitches, this year was perhaps the smoothest Sweet Work Weeks, and we did three weeks of work in two weeks.”

In the summer of 2015, Ann Gateley ’70 was transitioning into retirement from her professorship in internal medicine at the University of New Mexico, with a practice in sports medicine, taking care of all of the university’s athletes.

“Because I live in an area that is low-density in terms of fellow alumnae, I wasn’t able to engage in the heavy lifting in the effort to save the College,” Ann says. “I felt fairly helpless. But when I heard about alumnae gathering on campus in what was that first Sweet Work Weeks, I knew I could contribute with literal heavy lifting on campus, and I wrangled some extra time off work to attend.”

Ann says, “It was an exhilarating three weeks, an amazingly productive time. There was no real supervision on behalf of the College, no one had taken an assessment of what was needed; so we problem-solved, which speaks to our liberal arts education. Volunteers spread out over the campus with clipboards to assess what needed to be done.”

In the years since, Ann has become the alumna leader of the grounds-keeping efforts of Sweet Work Weeks, working with the College’s horticulturalist, Donna Meeks, even the year after Donna retired. “Donna taught me a lot about pruning and what plantings work best where,” says Ann.

Ann notes that Sweet Work Weeks has transitioned to a strong partnership with the College, as more of the new staff and administration have gained institutional memory of what the alumnae can accomplish. Ann says, “We are forging a partnership with the College, creating relationships.”

This year, in terms of the grounds, Ann noticed “evidence of proactive landscape attention. The grounds personnel have a considerable job with just the maintenance of the athletic fields, let alone at- tending to the signature physical beauty of our campus.”

Ann gives a shoutout to those involved in the effort that brought the slew of young alumnae from the classes of 2015 to 2018 to Sweet Work Weeks over the middle weekend this year. [Editor’s note: That was the Young Alumnae Squad working group of the Alumnae Alliance!]

She enjoyed having the young alumnae on her grounds-keeping crew. “It was energizing to see them owning the projects they worked on. I hope they keep return- ing to Sweet Work Weeks,” she says. “We need their energy; we need continuity; we need for them to own Sweet Work Weeks like us older alumnae have. I can’t do this in my 80s!”

It’s no secret among Sweet Work Week regulars that Ann’s favorite Sweet Work Week activity is “wine-down” after the day’s chores have been completed. “I like staying on campus and communing with other alumnae, learning about them,” she says. “When the young alumnae showed up, we had alumnae from many decades, and that’s good for all of us, extending our understanding of each other.

“I like working the high-profile projects — the upper quad, Monument Hill, Daisy’s Garden — because they are meaningful,” she adds. “But mostly, I like being outside, enjoying the campus. As students, we weren’t on campus at the time of Sweet Work Weeks, as school hadn’t started. It’s an interesting time to be there. The temperature and light are different. Sweet Work Weeks allows you to focus on the community of alumnae, to look at our school and enjoy the environs.”

Classmates Brendy Reiter Hantzes ’81 and Eve Devine ’81 have been coming to Sweet Work Weeks together for the past five years.

“We drove down to campus on some random weekend after the closure announcement. The campus was so sad,” Brendy says. “To get to go back and have a hand in erasing that at the first Sweet Work Weeks, to clean the place. It was cathartic.”

“It was important to be there,” Eve says. “I could give time and in some way give back.”

That first year, Brendy says though they concentrated on the Vixen Den, “My eyes took in the campus differently. Like the bulletin boards all over campus — they were covered with layers and layers of announcements of events years old. Things looked uncared for. We hoped our small part would be enough, so the students would have a sense of permanence.”

And coming back each year has also been important. Brendy’s schedule as a realtor living in Chantilly is flexible. Eve, who is the vice president of human resources at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, has had to block out vacation time. In the past few years, she has brought her niece down with her.

“She went to the Naval Academy, but she follows what’s going on with Sweet Briar, and she’s enjoyed helping out. We treat the whole trip as an adventure,” says Eve. “This year on the trip down, we stopped at the Amish marketplace on 29 and got pies at Yoder’s. In our days as students, we didn’t appreciate what was between campus and where we were going. Now it’s part of the adventure.” Brendy adds, “We have also been discovering Lynchburg’s restaurants.”

But being on campus is the main draw, as Eve says, “Going up the drive, my blood pressure goes down. Brendy and I joke that we are like pod people returning to the mothership to be re-energized. And we stay at the Elston Inn — I used to work in hospitality; the inn is fixed up nicely. It’s quiet and relaxing and our home base during Sweet Work Weeks.”

For both Brendy and Eve, the painting projects have been a favorite. “You can see the before and after, when a room is more welcoming to students,” Brendy says.

“It meant a lot to me to paint in Randolph,” says Eve. “Freshman year I was on the second floor and Brendy had a room in the basement. It’s as if I came full circle — I looked out of a window from the second floor and remembered my parents dropping me off.”

Alumnae painting a fire hydrantThis year, Brendy and Eve arrived toward the end of Sweet Work Weeks, after a lot of the projects had been completed or were winding down. Their main project was pulling cards from library books; not a sexy task, but removing the cards from all of the books in the library must be done, by law. And they were happy to make a dent in the very big job. Eve says, “I’ll do any assignment they give me.”

Brendy and Eve also worked the last Saturday of Sweet Work Weeks helping the new students move in, and then watched the Daisy Ceremony. “It was nice to see the students arrive with their parents. In 2015 I saw a campus practically abandoned. This year, I was there when 120 students moved in.”

“I hope there is always something we can do,” says Eve. “I love having breakfast with everyone, just like when we were students, but instead of heading off to class, we head off to work. I will be com- ing as long as I’m physically able.”

Brendy agrees: “Sweet Work Weeks is a new tradition.”