Stormy skies that quickly clear are a familiar phenomenon in our part of the country. Sudden shifts like these also are familiar to our Sweet Briar family, on a personal level. We weather storms with remarkable energy and come out on the other side with a clear purpose. Much like our equestrians smoothly cantering a hunter course, the College continues to ride past goals and milestones.
The success of Sweet Briar is possible because of tens of thousands of people over the course of its history: students, faculty, staff and donors. This week, an exceptional group of donors joined the board of directors on campus for a multi-day celebration of their generosity to Sweet Briar. On the sunny afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 23, a series of dedication events were held to honor these special members of our community with a quintessentially Sweet Briar blend of wellness, faith, vineyards and horses.
In the vineyard next to the Sweet Briar Farm green barn, Merlot Tract #1 was named in honor of Cornelia Long Matson ’58. At the Harriet Howell Rogers Riding Center, the main stables were named in honor of Howell Lykes Colton ’38. The new health and wellness center was named in honor of Keenan Colton Kelsey ’66. And, the chapel was named in honor Norma Patteson Mills ’60 and Olan Mills.
The dedication tour began at the vineyard, where we honored Cornelia Matson ’58. Her gift helped make the acres of grapes a reality. In 2019, we planted rootstock for chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc varietals, which were identified as most appropriate for Sweet Briar’s microclimate.
“Sweet Briar’s vision of revitalizing its land and investing in agricultural operations as a means of supporting both its own future and that of its students is one that is shared by Cornelia Long Matson, Class of 1958,” shared President Meredith Woo. “Her most recent contribution in support of our viticulture activities is a gift that is very close to her heart because Cornelia and Dick have international experience in wine. They owned and operated a vineyard and winery in Dordogne, France, from 1998 to 2013, and they sold their wine all over the world. Cornelia’s investment in Sweet Briar’s agricultural enterprises is helping the College realize its vision to renew its lands and foster a culture of sustainability throughout its community.”
After tasting some of the cabernet sauvignon grapes, with the picturesque backdrop of Merlot Tract #1, Cornelia shared how she came into the business of owning a vineyard. As she and her husband Dick were looking for a home in the French countryside, they came across one with a vineyard. It was never part of the plan, but Cornelia recalled with a laugh what she said to Dick, “Well, you like wine…” Combine that with her family’s agricultural heritage, and they made the leap into viticulture. Cornelia commended Sweet Briar for its vision and keen interest in supporting Virginia’s local and growing wine industry. “You are filling a need,” she said. “You are finding what you excel at and contributing.”
Cornelia ended her remarks by calling attention to the roses planted at the head of each row of vines. “This is a centuries old practice in France,” she explained. “Roses are the first to indicate a problem with the vines. If the roses are healthy, the grapes are healthy.” The symbolism of the lush rose bushes was not lost on the guests with the College’s motto of “She who earns the rose may bear it.”
With that, everyone enjoyed a wine tasting from Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard, who have purchased Sweet Briar’s grapes. Students from the Sustainability Club attended the dedication and spoke with the donors and board members about their studies and experiences, much to the delight of all parties. “For without students,” observed President Woo, “what are we?”
The next stop on the donor recognition tour was the Harriet Howell Rogers Riding Center. Our honorary donors, their families and our board members were greeted by Director of Riding Mimi Wroten ’93 and members of the NCEA and IHSA equestrian teams and Friends of Riding. Everyone gathered outside the west wing of the stables and soaked in the elegant view of the newly renovated stables and courtyard.
President Woo began by thanking her equine teachers Ray and Blues, on whom she took her first riding lessons with Mimi in 2019. “Because more than one third of our students ride, either for competition or recreation,” she said, “I felt it was important for me to learn to ride, and better understand the traditions, accomplishments and needs of our equestrian program and bond with Sweet Briar’s horsewomen.”
President Woo continued by proudly congratulating the team once again on their ODAC and NCEA championship titles. “To elevate the equestrian program to an even higher level, meet the needs and expectations of a rapidly increasing student body, and provide the best quality care to our horses, the Harriet Howell Rodgers Riding Center had to be renovated, updated and refreshed.”
One of the College’s most generous supporters, Richard “Dick” Clark Colton, Jr., understood that need. An avid horseman who breeds, trains and races, he wanted a way to honor his mother, Howell Lykes Colton ’38. From her childhood years through her time at Sweet Briar, Howell was a dedicated horsewoman. She was the student head of riding, and her love of horses stayed strong throughout her life.
“Always quick to help others,” shared President Woo, “Dick’s philanthropic interests have been spurred by his long struggle with cancer and the desire to give back.” In his speech, Dick shared how much joy it brings him to see his gift come to fruition and be able to meet the students who will benefit from his generosity. “When’s the next championship?” he asked them with a smile. “This year!” they responded in unison to rounds of cheers.
For Dick, renovating the stables was the perfect way to honor his mother and her contributions to Sweet Briar’s equestrian legacy. “Her time at Sweet Briar were easily the happiest days of her life,” he said. “When my sisters and I see pictures of her from that time, her face flows with joy.” Dick’s gift allowed the College to move ahead with the stable renovation project. “His contribution also helped us secure other gifts for the stables, as well as gifts for the renovation of the Riding Center’s Bailey Room and for courtyard landscaping,” explained President Woo. “Donors to the riding center renovation project, in addition to Dick Colton, include Lele Casalini, Susan Mueller, Toni Massie, William Passano, as well as an anonymous giver, and the Friends of Riding, many of whom are with us today.”
Mimi then shared how much this renovation is impacting the riding program now and how it will continue to do so well into the future. She also honored the past by thanking Harriet Rogers, Clayton Bailey, Paul Cronin and Shelby French for their dedication, leadership and skill at developing and operating one of the top equestrian programs in the country.
Dick’s heartfelt and oftentimes humorous speech made it clear to everyone just how much his family, Sweet Briar and the equestrian community mean to him. “One of the best things about being in the equine industry,” he shared as he looked out at the crowd, “is that you continuously meet so many smart and talented people.”
In another show of generosity, Dick shared how he brought another guest of honor with him, Seeking Albert, a smokey black Thoroughbred gelding. Seeking Albert, a promising steeplechase horse, is now the newest member of Sweet Briar’s equine family. Dick’s trainer, Arch Kingsley, Jr., shared how this special horse was a perfect fit for the College. “He’s talented, kind and good looking,” Arch said. “All the things you want in a horse.” After the ribbon cutting, Arch brought out Seeking Albert for all to admire. It was evident that he also felt the energy in the air as he strutted around the courtyard. Arch’s daughter Taylor shared how Albert was a special horse, full of personality and ability. And, you can guess how many people commented, “A future Vixen!”
After a blessing of the stables by Rev. Makanah Morris ’66, donors, board members and students mingled and shared stories while touring the stables, courtyard and beautiful new Bailey Room.
The third stop on this special day was the health center in the lower level of the chapel. “For as long as I have been at Sweet Briar,” said President Woo, “I’d been talking with the cabinet and the board about the need for an on-campus health clinic. With our enrollment growing, we were determined to address this need as soon as feasible, because a new, on-campus health center would visibly signal to the entire Sweet Briar community and to prospective students and their families, that we were committed to their health, safety and wellbeing.”
Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, the health center became an immediate need, central to reopening the campus in the fall of 2020. The project began in May 2020 and the new health center opened in early October 2020 in partnership with HealthWorks and Horizon Behavioral Health. This investment in caring for our students will serve the campus for years to come.
“Ministering to our students’ health and wellbeing is a responsibility that speaks deeply to the concerns and interests of Keenan Colton Kelsey, Sweet Briar College Class of 1966 and member of the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors,” shared President Woo. “Keenan has been a staunch advocate of wellness of mind, through her support of education, particularly single-sex education; of wellness of the earth, through her environmental activism; and of wellness of the spirit, through her role as an ordained Presbyterian pastor.”
“[Keenen] has been a visionary donor to the College,” President Woo continued. “Her contributions have included major gifts to the Sweet Briar Fund and support for the Howell Lykes Colton Scholarship Fund, which Keenan, her brother Richard, and her sister Elizabeth established in their mother’s honor. Keenan, like her mother, exemplifies what is best about Sweet Briar women.”
As Keenan began her remarks, she noted how everyone might have figured out this day was a family affair, with her brother Dick having just been recognized for his gift to the stables. “At reunion in 2015, we were taking all the photos everywhere we could,” she recalled. Then, she encountered a group of alumnae who declared, “This is not a done deal. Not on our watch!” Keenan swiftly connected with that group of women, and the rest is history.
Keenan’s remarks were filled with words and phrases often associated with Sweet Briar. “This place gave me the opportunity to find my identity, my sense of responsibility,” she shared. She used her words to paint a picture of what this place means to her and so many others: loyalty, kindness, justice, determination, teaching, encouragement, modeling, preparation, compassion, vision.
Keenan has been a part of the College’s transformation from recovery to a new awakening to creating a more just and sustainable earth. Standing in the courtyard outside the health center, she calls attention to this special corner of the Quad that now houses health, wellness and faith services. “We must extend health to healing to encompass wellness,” she said. “Wellness is community and to have faith in one’s ability and in the future. I dedicate this center for the greater good.”
This grand dedication tour’s final stop was the chapel—a fitting end to a deeply meaningful day. Built in 1964, the chapel has supported the spiritual practices of students from all faith traditions. “The chapel has always been a place for wellbeing and renewal,” remarked President Woo, “and it seems especially fitting that its lower level is now the home to the Keenan Colton Kelsey ’66 Health and Wellness Center.”
President Woo and Vice President Mary Pope Hutson ’83 wanted to honor this special building at the heart of campus, and they determined the best way to do that. When Norma Patteson Mills ‘60, received a call from the president and vice president, “I could guess what they might want to talk to me about,” Norma laughed. “But I was wrong.” Norma, who grew up in Amherst, and her husband, Olan Mills, were to be recognized for their support of the College by having the chapel named in their honor.
“They certainly harbor a deep appreciation for the spiritual lives of the communities they are part of,” said President Woo, “as demonstrated by their service to others and their many philanthropic commitments.”
Rev. Makanah Morris ’66 was honored to also take part in the dedication of the chapel in Norma and Olan Mills’ honor. “This is a gentle healing space,” she said. “We seek a holistically healthy and balanced life, and this has been a place to overcome challenges and seek solutions. Here, we gain new insights, new understandings and a new sense of being. We come here to search, to find and to be found. Norma and Olan’s support will ripple out over generations, bringing healing to our world.”
Norma and Olan were clearly moved by the dedication ceremony. “I am grateful and overwhelmed,” shared Norma. “As I stand here, I am overwhelmed. This is so very special.”
As everyone exited the Mills Chapel, the energy of the day’s events was still palpable. It almost felt like this was a continuation of the same energy that filled the beginning of the academic year. It was felt at Founders’ Day, as Prof. Jeffrey Key noted in his convocation address. And now, after this series of dedication events, the energy continues to roll across the entire campus. It surges through each person (and horse) who is a part of this special community. It moved out over the fields, blankets the Quad, swirls through the trees and fills every building. Momentum is a powerful force, one that Sweet Briar women and their families know a little something about.