Emilie McVea: A zeal for service

Aerial view of campus, c. 1922

In May 1925, the Times Dispatch in Richmond announced that Meta Glass would succeed Emilie Watts McVea as president of Sweet Briar College. Miss Glass, of course, would go on to be one of Sweet Briar’s best-known presidents, but her predecessor was an impressive woman in her own right.

Miss McVea was deeply religious, but still progressive in many of her views. Writing about her following her death in 1928, Professor Martin Fischer from the University of Cincinnati said, “Emilie McVea associated herself with every important social movement. Secondary school education, child labor, literary productiveness, the drama, an open university forum, the interests of college women, university standards and university administration, the parity of men and women in university posts, competent teachers for women’s colleges, states’ rights and the definitions of democracy were just a few of the interests to which she lent her marvelous energies.”

Her tenure as Sweet Briar’s second president was shorter than it might have been—just nine years—but she embodies many of the qualities we still associate with Sweet Briar today: leadership, compassion and strength of character.

The Early Years

Miss McVea was born in 1867 in Louisiana, the daughter of a judge. Her father died when she was relatively young and the family moved to Raleigh, N.C., to live with an aunt whose husband was president of St. Augustine’s College. The young Emilie was educated at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, and she would be an active alumna of the school for the rest of her life.

Miss McVea had already had an impressive career when she came to Sweet Briar to take over for the departing president, Mary K. Benedict. One of her early educational leadership positions was as “lady principal” at St. Mary’s. Following that, she went on to receive both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from George Washington University and taught English literature at the University of Tennessee. When the president of that university was named president at the University of Cincinnati, he thought so highly of Miss McVea that he recommended her for a teaching position at his new university, so off to Cincinnati she went.

Eventually promoted to dean of women at the University of Cincinnati, Miss McVea was so well thought of that when she left to take up the reins at Sweet Briar in 1916, she received tributes from a wide array of civic organizations. Among the letters of appreciation was one from the Council of Jewish Women, which noted that “she has been always ready to help with active suggestions and sincere interest.” The president of the chamber of commerce called her work for the city “inspiring” and the Association of Collegiate Alumnae called her a “fine example of the trained college woman and a personal inspiration” to many women. The Hamilton County Woman’s Suffrage Association, in expressing their regret at her departure, noted: “Your high ideals, your noble example—as well as your unswerving loyalty to this cause—have ever been a constant help and encouragement in our work.”

Her colleagues echoed those sentiments: “She has been an inspiring teacher, an administrator and leader in the higher education of women, the chief organizer of social amenities in our university, and a factor in every beneficent civic movement. . . . She has been a fountain of judicious advice to public officials and weeping school girls. I supposed that she has vicariously been in love a thousand times, so great has been her sympathy with the confiding young. She has been able, also, as few other women, to meet men upon their own terms, to discuss with them in a large way their own problems.”

Clearly, Sweet Briar was about to welcome an impressive leader into its young community.

A Woman of Principal

Sweet Briar women today would recognize and support her views on the importance of education for women. As early as 1910, she said in a speech, “The education of fifty years ago will not prepare the woman of today even for her traditional vocations; new conditions demand new training.” In a later essay, she wrote, “University courses should be planned, not for men or for women, but for students. . .these courses should be chosen by the student on the grounds of personal ability and inclination without regard to sex.”

Just as she believed that young women should be able to choose whatever course of study interested them, she also believed that women should be trained to be leaders. She spoke of the aim of the university to be, among other things, “to train leaders of thought and affairs.” In a letter to the president of the State Teacher’s College in Radford, she noted that her students “recognize that if they want to enter into any kind of professional life a college education today is almost a necessity. They feel that women have a right to look forward to leadership of various kinds and that a college does train leaders.”

She herself held many positions of leadership throughout her career. She was president of the Cincinnati Woman’s Club, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Association of College Women and president of both the Virginia Association of Colleges and the Southern Association of Colleges. She was also the first woman member of the board of visitors at the University of Virginia and the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University of North Carolina.

Rolling bandages, 1918

At Sweet Briar

Upon arriving in Amherst County, Miss McVea found herself at a school that was struggling financially and academically. Many of the students were part of the institution’s “Academy,” which provided classes for those who did not yet meet the standards of admission to collegiate work. Still, she intended make Sweet Briar into one of the premier learning institutions in the south.

Writing in the Sweet Briar Magazine in 1916, she said, “The possibilities of Sweet Briar are unlimited. With adequate endowment, with increased facilities, with an enlarged student body, she stands at the threshold of a new decade. In imagination I see her the true Alma Mater of the woman of the years to come, a woman clear-eyed, strong of body, vigorous in mind. Her head erect, with knowledge to guide her, she walks forth ‘to meet the shadowy future without fear,’ filled with reverence for truth and with zeal for service.”

She got to work right away. She raised admissions standards and added courses in bacteriology, botany, Greek, history, psychology, ethics, English and languages. A separate department of physics was established, along with economics and social science. By the end of her first year, the president and her cabinet had determined “that the Academy should be dropped as soon as the financial condition warrants,” a circumstance that came to pass in 1919, just three years later.

In fact, she’d made such in impact in three short years that in 1919, the student body dedicated the Briar Patch to her, saying, “With additional buildings, and an endowment, Sweet Briar can become within the next five or six years a college of five hundred students, and take its rightful place in the educational world. These few facts speak for themselves, and while we realize it has taken and will take many hands to carry on the work, we feel too, that words can but poorly express our gratitude and admiration for Miss McVea’s splendid initiative and accomplishment.”

Miss McVea went on the road to raise funds for Sweet Briar as well as to recruit students. She was regularly featured in newspaper society announcements as being the guest of honor at events held for the purpose of raising money for the Sweet Briar College endowment. In addition, her time as Sweet Briar’s president from 1916 to 1925 meant that she oversaw more than one global crisis.

During World War I, the College engaged in many war activities: raising money, rolling bandages, writing letters, supporting the Food Administration and working for the YWCA and the Red Cross. In writing about the end of the war, she said, “With all our might we will hold to the ideals of courage, of high purpose, of patriotism, and of humanity which these stern months have taught us; we will endeavor, to the utmost of our ability, as a college and as individuals, to do our part in interpreting to our generation the larger, finer meaning of democracy and of internationalism. Sweet Briar, even in its exquisite seclusion, has felt the throb, the heartbeat of the world. Her life has been enlarged and enriched by a share, small but real, in the activities and sacrifices of the nations of the earth. It has been our high privilege to have lived and wrought in the greatest years of the world’s history.”

Following the end of the war came the influenza epidemic in 1918, during which the students were “campused for almost a year,” according to one alumna’s recollection. “When we were released to go home at Christmas,” she wrote, “Miss McVea gave us stern orders to wear veils closely tied over our faces and never to take off our gloves until we reached home!”

Surgical dressings class, 1918

Later Years

The work of supporting and guiding Sweet Briar, then as now, is yeoman’s work, and Miss McVea, never robust, submitted her resignation in 1925 after suffering many months of ill health, apparently brought on by the strain of her administrative duties.

In accepting her resignation, the faculty wrote, “The material successes of your nine years of arduous service are evident to all who know Sweet Briar, the rapid increase in number of students, the enlargement of the Faculty, the enrichment of the course of study, the number of buildings erected and the care given to beautify the campus—these material achievements are patent and to be grasped by every passerby—but only the Faculty can fully estimate the more subtle yet precious achievements of the past nine years—the resolute breadth of view, the strenuous effort to guide not coerce into the straight path, to clear the vision, to uphold ideas, to work sympathetically with Faculty as well as with students, to give everyone a chance to attain her highest, these achievements, known to us most of all seem best worthwhile. Because of your patience, tolerance, love, we love you and feel keenly the loss of your presence and we wish you restored health and energy in the coming years, to help others as you have helped us.”

Miss McVea left a number of legacies at Sweet Briar that we still recognize and celebrate today. Under her leadership, enrollment grew from 134 to 362, the number of faculty grew from 17 to 34, and 10 new buildings were erected, including Fletcher, Reid and Boxwood—which she personally helped finance. It was under her watch that the Class of 1922 added the walk to Daisy’s grave during Founders’ Day, paying a simple, beautiful tribute at the grave of the young girl in whose memory Sweet Briar was founded. It was also during her tenure that the College first hosted Amherst County Day. In 1916, Sweet Briar was recognized only by the department of education in Virginia. By the end of her presidency, it was a member of a number of associations and had been put on the approved list of the Association of American Universities.

After she left Sweet Briar, she spent several months convalescing before undertaking a teaching job at Rollins College in Florida. Her efforts on behalf of Sweet Briar were recognized by her new home. Upon her arrival in the state, the Orlando Sentinel noted that she “was instrumental in developing [Sweet Briar College] into one of the leading colleges for women in the country, by raising standards and securing large sums of money for endowment and buildings.”

Sadly, her time at Rollins was short; she passed away in 1928. In October of that year, Sweet Briar’s Founders’ Day events included a memorial to her. The inimitable Meta Glass, her successor, noted that Miss McVea had set a high standard. “She had put into Sweet Briar perhaps her hardest work, certainly her maturest self,” Miss Glass wrote. “She watched new hands upon her wheel with abounding generosity. I found a fine and strong structure of her building and in my efforts to uphold and add to it I found joy always in her interest and her counsel. She relinquished with the same grace with which she acquired. I know no greater mark of a large soul.”

This article was originally printed in the fall 2020 issue of Sweet Briar Magazine.