New memorial revealed during Founders’ Day service

| September 25, 2015

Board chair Teresa Tomlinson ’87 places a rose at the memorial where a new inscription was revealed during the 2015 Founders’ Day ceremony. The plaque commemorates July 2, 2015, the first day of the next 114 years of Sweet Briar’s history.

It wasn’t exactly the usual crowd clustered inside the protective wall of the Fletcher-Williams family cemetery atop Monument Hill for the 2015 version of Sweet Briar’s Founders’ Day.

There was a bunch more lawyers in attendance for one thing, an uncommonly large turnout of alumnae for another — and many fewer students than in a typical year. But then, it was a Founders’ Day that wasn’t supposed to happen after an announcement on March 3 that the College would be closing its doors for good.

The out-of-the-ordinary guests —including Amherst County attorney Ellen Bowyer and members of a legal team from Troutman Sanders — were victorious warriors in the battle that kept Sweet Briar open. Among the day’s festivities, they were being honored for their work.

The annual tradition began on the Quad with the investiture of Phillip C. Stone as the College’s 12th president. The ceremony — a simple one by comparison to a typical inauguration to the office — was immediately followed by a procession of regalia-clad faculty, students and staff. As has been the case every year in recent memory, bagpiper William Plail led the long line of celebrants along the road to Monument Hill, where students lay daisies on the grave markers of the founding family.

Bagpiper William Plail leads the procession to Monument Hill.

But there were other differences in the way this Founders’ Day — Sept. 25, 2015 — unfolded. Following Chaplain Matt Gaventa’s invocation, Scripture readings and the laying of the flowers, Tracy Stuart ’93 took the microphone. Stuart is the founder of Saving Sweet Briar Inc., the alumnae-led group whose savvy legal and public relations campaign reversed the attempted closure of the school.

“Like Indiana Fletcher Williams, who took the tragic death of her beloved daughter Daisy and turned it into something timeless with the creation of this amazing institution, I hope we have also properly honored her legacy and spirit by taking something tragic and turning it into something magnificent, the rebirth of Sweet Briar College,” Stuart said.

“I believe that this historic struggle has turned out to be a blessing by directly involving and including more of our alumnae, faculty and students in the growth and development of the future of Sweet Briar.”

Calling out some by name, Stuart acknowledged all those who’d join the fight to save Sweet Briar, including the students who made the bold decision to come back. She noted that the outcome is a “restoration of what was so obviously right and just” — because Sweet Briar is more than a beautiful place.

“It is the combination of so much, a state of mind, a feeling that stirs our deep emotions of fond memories, a bittersweet longing for youth, and a beaming pride of having shared this unique women’s college experience together,” she said.

Having won, so far, the fight to preserve that experience for future generations, Stuart said the feeling evoked her days as a student-athlete.

“When thinking of Sweet Briar and the time I spent here, my mind sometimes drifts to the playing fields, the opponents, the hard-fought victories. We all felt that kind of victory on June 22nd. And it is up to us to make this victory last,” she said.

Laying daisies at the gravesite is an annual tradition.

Stone stepped to the microphone next and noted that, in addition to the daisies, a single rose had been placed on the grave markers for Indiana, James Henry and Daisy.

“Three roses for the Williams family,” he said. “Let us commit that never again on this hilltop will there be tears of sorrow or pain, only tears of joy in celebration.”

He then directed the crowd to move behind the large family memorial where he and board chair Teresa Pike Tomlinson ’87 unveiled a new engraved plaque. In a moment, he would ask her to place a fourth rose on its stone foundation.

“Today seemed to be appropriate to touch this sacred property one more time,” Stone said, noting the monument had stood undisturbed since it was placed. He read the new inscription, a brief poem:

We kept the faith
College saved
Vision endures
Roses still bloom
July 2, 2015

“We kept the faith,” he said again as cheers went up from the gathering. “And now we place the fourth rose.”

Gaventa closed the ceremony, sending his listeners forth into the “rainy and festive afternoon” with a charge.

He said, in part, “Go into this day and this celebration weekend with joy marked as children of the power of this holy ground. Go with courage and imagination and love. Go as ones who shine with the story of this sacred place, for all the world to see.”

Upon Gaventa’s final amen, from somewhere in the middle of the umbrellas and rain-sprinkled heads, a voice, clearly distinguishable as that of Wendy Weiler, Class of 1971, piped up.

“Yay, Sweet Briar!”

There was laughter, and then, a chorus of lilting voices rising in song:

Sweet Briar, Sweet Briar, flower fair,
The rose that on your crest you wear,
Shall never fade but always bear
Thy beauty, oh Sweet Briar.

Jennifer McManamay

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