Founders’ Day 2021: A legacy of remarkable individuals

Laying daisies on the Williams' graves
Laying daisies on the Williams’ graves

The events of Founders’ Day weekend were filled with joy, laughter, reflection, gratitude and a dash of humor. It was perfect September weather — not too hot with a mix of cloudy and clear skies. While this is a time of remembrance and honoring our founding families, there was a palpable feeling of happiness and energy in the air.

Walk to Monument Hill
Two seniors in academic robes Hannah Denson (left) and Ingrid Stacia lead the way to Monument Hill.

On the walk to Monument Hill, students raised their arms and voices for several rounds of cheering waves. Once at the top, many emotions mixed together as seniors shared their last Founders’ Day as students. Groups big and small formed all around the grassy hill for group photos and selfies with the iconic view of the College in the background.

But before the traditional walk, convocation was held in Murchison Lane Auditorium in Babcock Fine Arts Center. Students, faculty and staff filled the theatre, followed by the seniors in their academic robes. After the invocation by Rev. Deacon Katharine Chase ’67, President Woo took the podium and started by recognizing all of those who helped create the College we know today: the Williams family, the enslaved families and those whose contributions are evident in the names of building in which our community lives and learns.

President Meredith Woo
President Meredith Woo

“I live in the yellow house in the style of a Tuscan villa. A Tuscan villa in Amherst County, Virginia – one of the first such villas in the country: how absurd – and perhaps pretentious – is that?” asks President Woo with a smirk, followed by a round of laughs from students.

“It isn’t,” she continues. “The house that Miss Indie (as she was often called) built is one of the most authentic, comforting, and sheltering homes I have ever lived in.” President Woo then shared a little bit of Miss Indie’s history: “When the Civil War came, she believed that the south could not win. So she asked her financial counselor to help rid her of all Confederate currency – using it to invest in northern stocks and tobacco leaves. As a result, she probably got through the war less damaged than other southerners.”

“We celebrate Founders’ Day because history is important,” President Woo concludes. “We need to remember and reflect upon our origins to understand the current paths.”

President Woo’s closing remark was a perfect segue to political science professor Jeff Key’s convocation address. Did we mention that there was a good dose of humor at this year’s event? Professor Key played both political sides as he delivered a few witty jabs about giving speeches and his 8th grade teacher being Mr. Biden and when students gleefully pointed out typos in his work, we mentioned having attended George W. Bush Elementary School.

Professor Jeffrey Key
Professor Jeffrey Key

Perhaps the remark that got the most laughs was when Professor Key mentioned a text he received from his son: “If you wear a white Founders’ Day dress, the content of your speech won’t matter. In fact, I bet you’d never have to deliver any speeches again.”

With that, he redirected the audience’s attention back to the importance of reflecting on the past and the energetic feeling that is evident across campus. First, he took a moment to remember past faculty “giants.”

“I first came to Sweet Briar in 1990,” Professor Key begins. “Milan Happala taught government and international affairs courses at Sweet Briar for forty-three years. Born in Brno, then in Czechoslovakia, Milan took his Ph.D. at Duke University in 1947 and joined the Sweet Briar Faculty. When he retired in 1990, Sweet Briar replaced this erudite Central European with a rustic Texan. I recall other faculty ‘giants’ like Reub Miller. I cancelled an interview at Sewanee and accepted Sweet Briar’s offer because I wanted to work with this larger-than-life character. I learned that there were others characters. One of them, Margaret Simpson in biology, just recently passed away. And I can’t forget Judy Elkins in math, Lauren Oliver in studio art, and Ross Dabney in English. There were also quiet, formidable faculty like Joan Kent, Brent Shea, Barbara Perry, Ken Grimm, Cheryl Mares and Lee Piepho.  And of course, there was Mr. Cronin in the riding center. Others like Linda Fink and Laura Pharis came with me in 1990, and John and Carrie Brown and Scott Hyman came soon after. I was honored to be admitted to this faculty then, and I remain so today.”

Professor Key continued sharing memorable events and moments from his time at Sweet Briar over the past 31 years. He has spoken at every type of College gathering from orientation to commencement, read scripture at Christmas Vespers, chaired Winter Forums and was part of the special assembly after the events of 9/11.

He then shared fond memories with friends Karl Tamburr and Chuck Kestner. Karl taught English for decades and Chuck was director of physical plant, also, for decades.

Professor Key sees the College both changing and holding onto vital pieces of its past. “I recall when the Dairy Loop was home to an operating dairy farm run by a big Friesian, not Dutch, dairyman named Jan Osinga,” Professor Key recalls. “After its closing in the mid-1990s, several of the buildings were later repurposed as studios art spaces.  Nevertheless, Sweet Briar’s agricultural past has been revived. The greenhouse run by Lisa Powell provides the dining hall and wider community with organic vegetables. The campus is home to a twenty-one-acre vineyard and an apiary. Times change and organizations and people must evolve as well…. Sweet Briar’s message of the value of what I call ‘education on a human scale’ is getting out.”

In the end all he asks is “for Sweet Briar’s alums to continue to trust us to be good stewards of the College and its legacy. And I ask all students to do your assigned readings before going to class and to please submit all of your assignments on time.” A little bit of simple truth wrapped in humor goes a long way when appreciating the past and looking to the future.

Seniors celebrate their last Founders' Day at Monument Hill
Seniors in the academic diversity tap club Tau Phi (L to R): Caroline Czarra, Sophia Keniston, Erica Jennings, Alexia Alfaro, Elisabeth Otocka, Lucy Wasserstein, Lauren Jones, Griselda Vasquez-Ramirez and Weatherly Ryder

Following convocation, students, faculty and staff marched up to Monument Hill to the sound of bagpipes to lay daisies on the William’s family grave. The Sweet Tones sang “Sweet Briar, Sweet Briar, Flower Fair,” then students gathered together for endless rounds of photos, soaking up this special tradition.

A wonderful community dinner was enjoyed by all before the candlelight walk to the Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Grounds. At dusk, a large number of students, faculty and staff gathered in front of Sweet Briar House, and with candles and daisies in-hand, walked over the Upper Lake dam to the burial grounds to honor the founding enslaved families that helped create the College we know today.

Remarks at the Plantation Burial Grounds
Bria Albano ’25 welcomes everyone the Plantation Burial Grounds and remarks on the occasion.
Walk to the Plantation Burial Grounds
Walk to the Plantation Burial Grounds
Plantation Burial Grounds
Plantation Burial Grounds