Sweet Briar alumnae excel again, breaking Reunion giving records

“Sweet Briar’s alumnae are the envy of everyone in higher education.” 

That’s how Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83, senior vice president of alumnae relations and development, kicked off Sweet Briar’s Reunion Convocation in June. Truer words have never been said. 

Everyone knows the story of how Sweet Briar’s alumnae refused to accept the College’s announced closure in 2015 and stepped up to raise more than $21 million in gifts and pledges in just 90 days. Their work ensured that the College didn’t just remain open, but has launched into a new era, thriving despite a global pandemic and leaning into its historic strengths in women’s leadership, engineering, sustainability and agriculture, the arts and its championship-winning equestrian program.

You might think that the generosity and dedication of Sweet Briar alumnae would wane as time has passed, but that hasn’t been the case at all. The U.S. economy may be struggling, but Sweet Briar isn’t and its alumnae continue to support their alma mater at record levels.

In June, Sweet Briar recognized four classes for their leadership in raising funds for the College. The Class of 1972 led the charge with an eye-popping giving total of more than $10 million. Their participation rate is notable too—more than 50%.

Susan Snodgrass Wynne ’72 served as one of the co-chairs for her 50th reunion and was one of the many leaders that helped the class exceed their fundraising goal of $7.2 million. She was recognized during reunion with the Outstanding Alumna Award for her work on behalf of the College and her community in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Susan is a Sweet Briar legacy; her mother, great-aunt and sister also attended the College. She’s been a stalwart volunteer for the College since her graduation, and this isn’t the first time she’s led her class to record-breaking year. She did it for their 25th reunion as well. 

“Class of 1972,” she said when presented with the award, “I am here representing all of us. We are committed and we are competitive. I have often wondered what we could accomplish if we all lived in the same community,” she said with a laugh. 

“This was a remarkable record amount to challenge all future 50th Reunion Classes,” notes Susan’s friend, Sally Old Kitchin ’76. “Susan was greatly responsible for bringing 62 of her classmates to campus for Reunion and for their outstanding fundraising efforts. She was surrounded by love and joy from her family, her classmates, her friends and 365 alumnae. Holla, Holla, Holla to our own Pink Rose! There is truly nothing she cannot do!”

Susan and her husband, Dubby, live in Virginia Beach, where they are both notable for their community service. Susan has been an alumna, teacher, volunteer and trustee member for Norfolk Academy. She has been a member and president of the Virginia Beach Garden Club, served on the vestry of Galilee Episcopal Church, and she and Dubby have been instrumental in founding the Ronald McDonald House in Norfolk, giving families a place to stay when their children are receiving medical care at the hospital. Most recently she has been the driving force for the new mental health center at the children’s hospital in Norfolk. She is a pillar of her community and a champion for children and education.

The notable sum raised by Susan and her Sweet Briar classmates will support a host of initiatives on campus. More than $2 million supports the Sweet Briar Fund, the College’s unrestricted fund. Another $2.5 million is making it possible for the College to refurbish spaces in the College’s eight historic residence halls and renovate the Student Commons Courtyard. In addition, their giving has increased the ’72 Memorial Scholarship, which will help the College recruit and retain the best transfer students. 

The process of raising the impressive sum began more than five years ago—before the class’s last reunion. Since then, leaders from the Class of 1972 have reached out to more than 100 classmates, including several who have been out of touch with the College. It was these one-on-one conversations that really made the difference, says Jeannette Pillsbury ’72, who served as class fund agent and was the class’s other 50th reunion co-chair. “After talking to so many of our classmates, I am in awe of all that that we have been and done in our lives. I know that Sweet Briar had a great deal to do with that,” she says.

Georgene Vairo ’72, former chair of the Sweet Briar Board of Directors and member since 2015, was another class leader and agrees with Jeannette about the importance of teamwork and communication. She explained that the class communicated by snail mail, email, newsletters, lunches, phone calls and Zoom. “Going all the way back to 2016, when we were planning our 45th reunion, my role was to be a cheerleader,” Georgene says. “I wanted to help every classmate on the call become as enthusiastic about Sweet Briar as I was. Now, people who were on the fence are full-throated believers.” And where does she see Sweet Briar going in the future? “Reclaiming our position as a preeminent women’s college in the United States and a leader for women’s leadership across the world,” she says.

It isn’t simply the Class of 1972 whose giving is noteworthy. Total reunion class giving will top $12.9 million this year and three other classes each raised more than $1 million. Non-Reunion classes rose to the challenge, too—the Class of 1963 reached $2,286,980 in total giving and the Class of 1975 reached $1,091,232. The Class of 1962, who celebrated their 60th reunion, reached $2,181,292 in total giving, with much of their giving supporting the College’s Presidential Scholarship program, providing funding for students with outstanding academic achievements. 

Overall, 24% of the alumnae in Sweet Briar’s reunion classes have made gifts this year and, like the class of 1972, participation for the class of 1962 topped 40%. The class of 1952 topped 50%, while the classes of 1957, 1967 and 1977 had more than 30% participation. As a result, Sweet Briar is on pace to have a record-breaking year of fundraising.

During Reunion Convocation in June, awards were presented all around for these stellar giving accomplishments. Another award of note was the Distinguished Alumna Award presented to Celia Williams Dunn ’61 for her remarkable career in real estate spanning Savannah, GA and the surrounding area for over 40 years. She is the only female realtor to be honored by Junior Achievement Savanah Business Hall of Fame. She also has received numerous awards both nationally and locally for her extensive community involvement. Upon being presented the award Celia said, “I feel that our primary focus should be on helping people and making their lives better.” Her husband Larry, her granddaughter, Mimi, and classmate Bee Thayer joined her on campus for Reunion. 

President Meredith Woo is thankful for the support and leadership of the alumnae. “At Sweet Briar, we deploy the best of the liberal arts learning to impart in women the skill, compassion and vision to make our world better,” she says. “Our alumnae are really the best example of how women exercise their leadership, so effectively and collaboratively. I am most grateful to them for their support for the college.” 

Jody Broome Barnett ’72, who returned to campus for the first time in 52 years, is gratified by the College’s resurgence. “I like that Sweet Briar has become a focal point for leadership education for women,” she says. “I feel that this is the time for women to step into really important roles and change the dynamic of the way our country is going and, ultimately, the way the world is going. I am so grateful for this school.”