Once upon a time, Nancy Godwin Baldwin ’57 was a “traveler.”
No, it’s not a being out of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. Today Sweet Briar calls them admissions counselors. In 1958 it was supposed to be a one-year job commitment while Baldwin figured out what came next.
“I spent my life ‘on the road’ visiting [high] schools across the United States or in the office, interviewing [prospective students] — I loved it! The rest is history,” Baldwin said.
Before that, she was a drama major (1953-57) at SBC and a speech and theater graduate student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio (1957-58). Since then, she has been an assistant director of admissions (1958-66) at Sweet Briar, then director of admissions (1966-80), and editor of the Alumnae Magazine (1986-present), during which time she agreed to “temporarily” work part time in development (that lasted about 20 years). From 1980 to 1986, she rested.
So, Baldwin’s association with Sweet Briar spans 54 years. That’s just one reason she’ll be so missed when she retires on June 30.
Along with the retirement of Sandra Maddox, longtime assistant to the director of the Alumnae Association Louise Swiecki Zingaro ’80, the impact on the association is huge, Zingaro said. Maddox had worked in the office for 46 years.
“[That’s] almost a hundred years of institutional history. They know decades of alumnae,” she said.
It was Zingaro’s predecessor, Ann Morrison Reams ’42, who brought Baldwin back to edit the Alumnae Magazine in 1986. During the interim Baldwin indulged her gardening hobby, giving most of her home’s top floor over to an indoor greenhouse.
But she had stayed active with SBC, Reams said, explaining how she knew Baldwin was right for the job. “Especially when you’re connected with the alumnae office, you’re into the whole shooting match.”
Also, Reams pointed out, “Having sold the College to students and parents across the country, she has such a wonderful overview of what the College is all about.”
Sandra Taylor ’74 was sold on it after an SBC traveler presented a slide show at her Richmond high school. Her mother and father were not. Taylor wasn’t thinking about being one of the only black students on campus, but her parents were.
Following a visit to the school, Taylor discovered her mother and father were a “little more amenable” to the idea. Years later she learned why.
“Nancy [then director of admissions] convinced my parents that it would be OK for me to come to Sweet Briar and that she would personally look out for me,” Taylor said. “Now, the plot thickens because my parents were so impressed with my experience at Sweet Briar that they pretty much insisted that my sister [Marsha Taylor Horton ’76] come.”
Later, nearing graduation and unsure what kind of work she wanted to go into, Taylor went to Baldwin for advice. Among her suggestions, Baldwin mentioned that several offices on campus had openings.
“When Nancy finished talking, my new dream in life was to work as an admissions counselor,” Taylor said.
She was on “pins and needles” until she heard she’d been selected for the job. Taylor recounted what happened next.
“Once again, naive, I think I’m just gonna get my little slide show and off I go. Oh, no. All summer we had what I call the Nancy Baldwin School of Public Speaking.”
Every day the budding travelers were grilled on Sweet Briar until they could speak extemporaneously on the College for some 30 minutes without any “ums” and “wells,” Taylor said. And no one “graduated” until they were all ready.
Taylor, today a senior vice president at SunTrust Bank, has since done a lot of training and public speaking in her career. “The comments were always ‘you’re so engaging, you keep the audience laughing,’ and every time I would get a positive response I thanked Nancy Baldwin.”
Baldwin’s handprint on the College is undeniable.
“Nancy shaped the future of Sweet Briar in many ways through the students she’s admitted,” Zingaro said.
Many went on to be doctors, engineers and high-ranking corporate executives. Many of those have made their own marks on SBC as members of the board of directors or the Alumnae Association board.
Among SBC graduates’ accomplishments, Baldwin may be proudest of her own two nieces, Cannie Crysler Shafer ’78 and Sophia (“Sophie”) Crysler Hart ’81. The College’s Crysler Award for four-year athletes was named in honor of Shafer, who was one of nine charter member inductees of the Sweet Briar College Athletics Hall of Fame at Homecoming 2006.
Shafer, who earned a master’s at Villanova, is head of the Episcopal Academy’s Lower School in Devon, Penn. Her sister, Sophie Hart, earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and went into the U.S. Foreign Service. Today she is director of corporate and foundations relations in development at Colonial Williamsburg. She also teaches at William and Mary.
Undoubtedly, Sweet Briar has shaped Baldwin, too.
“I always say, shortly after I was born, I turned right and came here,” Baldwin said, who also graduated from St. Catherine’s, an all-women’s prep school in Richmond.
She was working at SBC when she met her husband, Tom, a young engineer, in 1960. Looking for a diversion after weeks at home with chicken pox, she tried out for a Lynchburg Little Theatre production of “The Moon is Blue.”
“We were cast opposite each other,” Baldwin said. “I was engaged at the time to a grad school buddy who was teaching at a college in Missouri. But between March and June, one ring came off, another went on.”
He was at her side for years, traveling to faraway places on vacation or at their home entertaining coworkers or students. Taylor recalled a dinner party they hosted in the summer of 1974.
“We danced, and her husband was [there] and she had the cats and the dogs. She’s a fabulous cook. There’s just so many things about Nancy,” Taylor said.
Some who know Baldwin say she is timeless. No one remembers her with a different hairstyle. She dresses impeccably, with a keen eye for hip animal-themed clothing and jewelry. But she doesn’t mind if students today wear pajamas to class or let their jeans drag the ground.
Every generation is its own, and they get the same respect as all that went before. That constant evolution is one reason Baldwin remained at Sweet Briar.
“It was endlessly interesting,” she said. “Everything that I saw happening seemed good at the time, some proved good, some proved not so good, but there was something going on all the time. I would not have stayed had I been bored.”
Baldwin’s service to SBC also encompasses countless volunteer hours. For that, she will be honored during Reunion on May 19, when she receives the 2007 Outstanding Alumna Award. It recognizes volunteer service.
Recently, looking back on her time here, she remembered working a Reunion when she was still a student. “I saw a little old lady come in and say, ‘Well, where are the rest of the girls?’ “she said.
“I just thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, because here was this person, who obviously was aged, saying ‘Where are the rest of the girls?’ At that point in my life, she looked as if she could have known Methuselah.”
Now, Baldwin looks forward to the future.
“Well, I intend to really enjoy myself,” she said. “I hope to add on to my house. I am going to read as much as I want to, any time of the day or night. I intend to stay up and watch late movies.
“And I would like to do some traveling, too. I’ve always had a love-hate for George Armstrong Custer and I want to see where it happened to him. I want to go west. And I would love to take that marvelous train trip through the Canadian Rockies.”
Baldwin says she’s a “tourista,” a persona that years of traveling for admissions did not diminish.
She recalled her second and last bittersweet trip to Indonesia in 1996. She’d raved so much about the country following her first visit there with an Alumnae College group that her husband insisted they go together.
“He loved every single moment,” she said.
But on a Saturday two weeks after their return, Tom Baldwin was admitted to Lynchburg General Hospital with a respiratory illness that doctors couldn’t identify and from which he did not recover.
“We had a wonderful Sunday,” Baldwin said. “We talked and chatted, he of course had a breathing apparatus on, but he was feeling pretty good. And Monday morning when I walked in he was on total life support.”
Baldwin’s voice caught as she repeated how glad she was that they took the trip to Indonesia.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “He had such a good time.”
There will be a reception for Baldwin from 3 to 5 pm. Friday, May 4 in the Wailes Lounge at the Elston Inn. All are welcome.