What does a small private school do when its endowment doubles overnight?
That’s a story the Washington Post magazine examines this weekend. It’s not an idle question: Last October, the Foxcroft School — a century-old, elite all-girls academy in Virginia hunt country — received $40 million from the estate of Ruth Bedford.
Bedford had graduated more than 80 years earlier. She’d spent most of the rest of her life quietly, in Westport. Her gift stunned the 157 students, as well as administrators, teachers and well-heeled alumnae (“the daughters of corporate titans, foreign nobility and political dynasties,” the Post says — including duPonts, Mellons, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies).
They had reason to be amazed. Bedford — who was 99 when she died, in June — had just made what is believed to be the largest gift ever to an all-girls school, and one of the largest gifts to a secondary school from a woman. Major universities would drool over such a donation.
The Post story describes Bedford’s youth. She was “born to a Standard Oil family fortune expanded significantly by her grandfather, Edward T. Bedford, who in the early 1900s helped the company popularize the petroleum byproduct known as Vaseline.”
As an exuberant, involved Foxcroft girl, Bedford played basketball, performed in plays and rode on the equestrian team. Her senior yearbook entry from 1932 includes this poem: “A gallant rider in very truth, is our swinging, singing Ruth. Though many a rider he’s let slip, Cross Country knows her iron grip.”
When Bedford attended Foxcroft in the early 1930s, the Post says, the school “was out of an idyll.” It “retains its rural mystique, but its luster has faded.”
The main academic building’s walls are scuffed, its paint chipping. Science labs housed in the basement are dark and musty. Sidewalks are crumbling. The theater is in a stale time warp, its wood-paneled walls dull and waxen.
The Post says that Bedford — who never married — left nothing to family members. It adds:
Before she died in June at 99, she served as a Red Cross aide in World War II, did backstage work on Broadway for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and skimmed the Long Island Sound while piloting her seaplane. But she lived in relative obscurity in her later years, mucking out horse stalls in jeans and driving a beat-up station wagon.
Though she maintained a deep love for Foxcroft, her donation came almost as a complete surprise. “There’s a saying that to whom much is given much is expected,” said former Foxcroft trustee Bill Weeks. “I really feel that it’s fitting of Ruth’s life.”
Foxcroft has not yet decided how to use the money. McGehee would like to enhance its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) offerings, in a heavily liberal arts curriculum.
She won’t spend too much on buildings. “It would be gone just like that,” she told the Post.
“I want to make sure the girls feel no barrier to what they can accomplish,” she added.
$40 million — from a woman who accomplished quite a lot herself, in a very low-key way — will go a long way to help.
(To read the full Washington Post magazine story, click here. Hat tip: Charles Cole)