Summer 2022 / Features

From Senior Bash to Thunder Crash

By Darrach Dolan

A Truly Wilson Commencement Weekend. Wilson’s 152nd Commencement is a weekend-long celebration.

With so many students graduating and events around campus, Wilson College’s 152nd Annual Commencement was a weekend-long celebration.

This year we honored 170 undergraduate and 135 graduate students plus, for the first time, the 107 students who completed their Pennsylvania teacher certification program. The achievements of this year’s graduating class were all the more extraordinary because they succeeded despite the disruptions of the pandemic.

Congratulations to all 412 new Wilson alumni, their families, and friends!

Friday and Saturday: Fun, Tradition, and Honors

The festivities kicked off on Friday night with the Ring it Forward ceremony (see page 34), followed by the traditional Senior Bash, where our graduating seniors let off steam with party games, treats, and fun.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, the more formal events began when students assembled and marched in a procession to the Alumnae Chapel for our traditional Baccalaureate — a blessing and celebration conducted by Rev. Derek Wadlington and featuring the Wilson College Choir.

The afternoon festivities got underway with a ceremony recognizing the 57 students graduating with Latin Honors and the many inducted into the national honors societies Omicron Delta Kappa, Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Gamma Mu, Sigma Tau Delta, and Sigma Theta Tau.

The nursing graduates took center stage with their convocation and pinning ceremony. The graduates recited the Florence Nightingale Pledge to uphold the morals and best practices of their profession and devote themselves to the welfare of their patients. In a ceremony that dates back centuries, new nurses receive a pin from their conferring institution to remind them of this pledge and to recognize their entrance into the nursing profession.

We celebrated the “completers” who finished the required coursework for Pennsylvania teacher certification. The College proudly graduated 107 future teachers, and we wish them well as they go out into the world to educate the next generations.

And in another first, we honored our graduating veterinary nurses with a pinning ceremony to honor their entrance into their profession. They pledged to uphold professional and ethical standards and remain lifelong learners.

Sunday: Undergraduate and Graduate Commencement

Although the forecast had called for severe thunderstorms, keeping the staff and administration on tenterhooks, the weather gods smiled on this year’s graduates, and Commencement went ahead under sunny skies with a nice breeze to keep the temperatures pleasant.

At 10 a.m., the graduating undergraduates took their seats and were welcomed by Board of Trustees Chair Dr. Barbara L. Tenney ’67 and President Wes Fugate. Juliann Winkler, president of the Class of 2022, spoke on behalf of the class and presented the College with a gift to help install new water fountains around campus.

Fugate and professors Jill Hummer, Tammy Ege, and Michael Cornelius led the praise for Associate Professor of History Kay Ackerman, Associate Professor of Veterinary Nursing George Bates, and Professor of English Larry Shillock, who were bestowed with the honor of Professor Emerita or Emeritus.

Then Fugate introduced commencement speaker Michael Cerveris, the acclaimed and award-winning stage and screen actor, and conferred on him the honorary degree, Doctor of Humanities.

In a speech peppered with self-deprecating humor, Cerveris told the graduates that he was an example of what was possible if they set their minds to it. He was not unlike a lot of them in that he grew up in a small town “not all that different from where a lot of you are from.” And he was “someone who went from fairly unspectacular beginnings to a life that sometimes has me flying around the world for work with famous people in fancy surroundings. [This] might help you see that so many things that seem out of reach and impossible because of where you’re from might actually be possible for you, just as it turns out they were for me.”

Inspired by a handwritten sign he saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” his final advice was to question everything, remain open to all possibilities, and not be afraid to get things wrong. “The humility we gain by considering we might be wrong is how we hear the still, small voice that tells us what that next right thing is,” he concluded. “Take your convictions and beliefs and try to make the world you want to live in. But also leave room for the world as it is, and as it has been, to change you and to ask you questions.”

The graduate degree candidates were also greeted by Dr. Tenney and President Fugate. Their class speaker, Ralph J. Ursillo, received his master’s degree from Wilson 60 years after he received his bachelor’s from Columbia College in 1962.

Ursillo told the class that we live in turbulent times, mentioning the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, racism, gender inequalities, and disagreements about abortion as examples. In his experience, “One answer is to read, interpret, question, and act upon one’s conclusions with civility. Listen to counterarguments with an open mind. Question the assertions of both real or fake news.”

He asked the audience to be lifelong learners because “study in the arts and history can yield a wealth of information that is applicable to every walk of life and at any time of life.” Being an inveterate reader has helped him throughout his career, “To sum it up, for me, reading and the study of the humanities embody the best elements of humanity — human creativity and imagination — and are to be treasured and enjoyed.”

Next, the honor of Trustee Emerita or Emeritus was conferred on Jeanne Crawford Beck ’65, Trudi Warner Blair ’76, and John W. Gibb.

Both ceremonies concluded with the conferring of degrees and AAWC President Lynne E. DiStasio ’74 welcoming the classes into the association. In his parting words, Fugate congratulated the classes, wished them success, hoped they would always consider Wilson their family, and encouraged them to return frequently.

Only minutes after the graduate Commencement concluded, as Main Green cleared and families, friends, and graduates left, cell phones buzzed and blared with emergency weather warnings! The thunderstorms had held off just long enough to act as a natural curtain call on Wilson’s spectacular 152nd Commencement!

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Letter from the President

I write this letter a day after closing the books on our One Grand Reunion. What a terrific weekend! I am not sure who had more fun: me or our alumnae and alumni! It was wonderful to be with so many of you, especially our three 50th Reunion classes. It was a grand celebration indeed. This edition of our magazine celebrates our Reunion as well as our newest graduates, the Class of 2022.

Wesley R. Fugate

Over the weekend, we heard the stories of students who lived through our near closure in 1979 and the years immediately following. It is clear that the students who experienced these events, whether they remained at the College or chose to transfer, and those brave individuals who came to Wilson in the early 80s, sacrificed so much. Their experiences were not the typical student experience. The atmosphere on campus was unusual — tension, uncertainty, and insecurity cast long shadows. Resources were constrained. And, yet, leadership showed through. Perseverance, belief, and determination are the qualities we associate with Wilson women, and these women lived up to and exceeded these expectations as hard as that may have been.

On behalf of the College, I offer a heartfelt thank you to the women who served and persevered as students during those trying times. What you gave and sacrificed saved the College and ensured her future. Without you and all you did, there would be no Wilson today. On behalf of a very grateful community, I acknowledge the Wilson women impacted so directly by the events of 1979. Thank you for being beacons for the future.

Reunion also allowed me to deliver my first in-person State of the College address. During my remarks, I shared the challenges that Wilson faces and the broader state of higher education today. The pandemic has dramatically impacted all of higher education and Wilson. 1.3 million fewer students are going to college today than there were in the Spring of 2020 — about 40,000 fewer in Pennsylvania alone. Unfortunately, enrollment is unlikely to increase dramatically any time soon.

Wilson has experienced this drop in enrollment. We had about 200 fewer students this past year than the year in which the pandemic began, and we predict another year of smaller entering classes. We cannot let the pandemic rob us of our success and future. It has already taken too much from us. Our solution must be to grow enrollment, and during my remarks, I detailed the phenomenal efforts of our faculty and staff to implement our five-year strategic plan, Future Wilson: The Phoenix Rises.

As we grow enrollment, we need crucial support to get us through those years as we build back. In the days and weeks ahead, we need your help. The Board of Trustees has authorized the College to move forward with an atypical fundraising campaign: one focused on our current needs. We will be seeking your support to fund current year scholarships, faculty and staff support, the Wilson Fund, and our growth initiatives to help ensure that Wilson thrives into the future.

Multiple times in our history, when things have become extraordinarily difficult, Wilson alumnae, alumni, and friends have stepped forward to help ensure the institution’s legacy. And we can do it again, with each of your help. Small but mighty, we rise … united for Wilson’s future.

Wilson’s story began as Chambersburg emerged from the ashes of the Civil War. It is fitting that the phoenix is our mascot because Wilson always finds ways to not only rise but soar after adversity. We will do it again, but only with your help. And while we shake off the ashes of the pandemic, we continue day in and day out to do what we do best: make a difference in the lives of students. Because our world needs Wilson graduates today, perhaps more than ever before.
– Wesley R. Fugate

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One Grand Reunion

By Darrach Dolan

After a hiatus of three years due to pandemic restrictions, Wilson welcomed back her alums in person for One Grand Reunion to celebrate and reconnect with the College and each other. And it was a party to remember for everyone!

We had over 300 participants from over 28 states and several countries come to celebrate their alma mater, renew old friendships, and make new ones.

There were three sets of alum sisters, many bigs and littles, a handful of alums who hadn’t been back since their graduation, and many who have been frequent campus visitors. The Class of 1947 was the earliest class represented. The Class of 1972 was the class with the greatest percentage and the largest number of class members registered.

Three classes — 1970, 1971, and 1972 — celebrated their 50th anniversaries together. Their enthusiasm and good-natured rivalry energized the festivities.

The Three 50th Classes Give Generously

The Class of 1970 – 1970 Scholarship and the Wilson Fund – $106,058

In the words of Beth Lange – 1970 is a special class. The class came up with a mantra or guiding principle for our 50th reunion — Teamwork. Class Focus. Wilson Priority.

Teamwork: First, to make this work, we formed a terrific team — Grace Jenchura, Emily Muller, Becky Stout, Lydia Saris-Mechenbier, Carole Ashbridge, and me, Beth Lange. A team of two lawyers, a doctor, two senior business leaders, and a senior educator with start-up ideas, can you imagine those meetings!

Class focus: Our first step was to conduct a survey to get input from classmates on where we should focus our special giving initiative. The votes selected the 1970 Scholarship Fund. We notified classmates, and five communications each school year kept classmates current on giving. We also thanked them for their commitment to Wilson.

Wilson Priority: The team raised the question two years ago [with the pandemic affecting the College’s finances negatively]: “Should we turn over some of the Scholarship Fund to the Wilson Fund?” We decided the need was immediate and donated to the Wilson Fund while keeping most in reserve for the scholarship fund.

Class of 1971 – 1971 Scholarship and the Wilson Fund – $203,165

In the words of Cathie Sunderland Jenkins – Acting as the Class Ambassador for the Wilson Class of 1971 has been a joy and an honor for me. When I began the effort in earnest six years ago with a balance of around $1,600, I had a lofty goal of $100,000 in mind. I started sending emails and letters to my classmates asking for their support. To my happy surprise, many responded positively. Motivated by their ongoing commitment, I tried to keep them apprised of both the College’s progress and our reunion plans, which have taken a crazy path throughout the COVID-19 years.

We have unanimously agreed to create an endowed $50,000 Class of 1971 scholarship, which is now fully funded. President Fugate’s impassioned pleas for help to make it through the challenges resulting from the pandemic now have us directing all giving above the scholarship amount to the Wilson Fund to use where the administration sees the greatest need. The Class of 1971 is remarkable in its generosity.

At The Grand Reunion, I was so excited to see my classmates and to thank each of them personally. It’s not easy to ask friends again and again to donate more money, but I believe in Wilson and her future, and I know my friends in the Class of 1971 do as well. I am so proud of the gift we presented to President Wes at the Saturday luncheon, and I know my class is “firmly pledged to love and honor” Wilson College. Leading our effort has been a privilege for me. Thank you, classmates and staff, for your support of my endeavor.

The Class of 1972 – ’72 Class-y 50th Gift for the Wilson Fund (benefiting unrestricted scholarships) – $86,651.72

In the words of the Class of 1972 – 50 years ago, our class banner reflected what we hoped would be the legacy of the Class of 1972: “If we change the world, let it bear the mark of our intelligence.”

In the months leading up to this 50th reunion milestone, classmates shared a multitude of Wilson memories via emails and Facebook. These memories highlighted what we valued most at Wilson: challenging and engaging academics, diverse extracurricular options, opportunities beyond the classroom, a melting pot for friendships, and images for a lifetime. Our experiences here have expanded and enriched our lives.

At this time, it seems most fitting that our legacy be to enable more students to create their own Wilson experiences, including strong educational foundations and friendships to open doors throughout their lives. Our gift, therefore, is dedicated to scholarships. We hope that the beneficiaries of our legacy will enjoy sharing their Wilson experiences with each other at their 50th reunion as much as we have.

1979 and 80s Discussion: Wilson College History, Aftermath, and Growth from the Student Perspective
A panel discussed the turbulent years leading up to and after the near-closure of the College in 1979 and the ramifications of those events for students at the time and those who remained at or enrolled in the College during the 80s. Panelists included Mary Snider Bolt ’84, Janet Serdy ’79, Gretchen Van Ness ’80, Amy Ensley, director of the Hankey Center for the History of Women’s Education, Mary-Linda Sorber Merriam Armacost Hon. ’91, President Emerita.

Class of 1970 – From left to right, Row 1 – Sally Bogert Hemsen, Susan Smith, Carolyn Kraft Pollock, Ginny Sachse Alworth, Gwen Taylor, Deborah Ryan Dunsmore, Carole Stoehr Ashbridge, Paula Stoner Reed. Row 2 – Janet Knox Harvey, Becky Stout, Carolyn Von Bulow Dittmar, Beth Oehrig Lange, Brenda Hicks Birdsey, Grace Venable Jenchura, Margie Overhoff, Casey Hinojosa Goodall. Row 3 – Judy Keur Toth, Emily Gaston Muller, Lee Rasi, Carolyn Cordonnier Eckhardt, Martha Hart Johns, Pam Spear Price, Peg Diffenderfer, Leslie Hickland Hanks.

Class of 1971 – From left to right, Row 1 – Suzanne Iudicello Martley, Susan Slabonik Saye, Lynn Johnson-Hurley, Margaret Maxwell McLaughlin, Barbara Bird, Diane Smith Carnahan, Ruth Campbell Rankin, Roxann Filaseta, Mary Lyn Allen Ballantine. Row 2 – Kathy Schall Schwalm, Carol Groff Leed, Jeanne Free Lynam, Paula Spezza Tishok, Mary Lydecker Moyer. Row 3 – Jane Warren Read, Susan Burich Redding, Karen Kane Landman, Rilla Klacik, Linda Sargent Beach. Row 4 – Kathy Seitz Bortner, Shirley Marlatt Aumack, Cathie Sunderland Jenkins, Carol Erickson, Alice Thomson Van Deusen, Susanna Neale Duke. Row 5 – Kathy Shannon, Cindy Gray Brown, Chris Crans Limerick, Charlotte Hammond Brown.

Class of 1972 – From left to right, Row 1 – Deborah Hamburg McKay, Mary Baesman Darlington, Charlotte Weaver-Gelzer, Char Pike Krichew, Leigh Wilson Price, Sheila Rosato Reed, Susan Bunting Bianchi, Janet Sullivan Vesterlund, Lynne Sehulster. Row 2 – Elma Thomas Haley, Janice Kimenhour, Marcia Smith, Judy Rush Scott, Patti Ewing Kiley, Marjorie Bookhout, Kathleen Phillips Tanaka, Missy Widerkehr. Row 3 – Emily Schneck Glossbrenner, Karen Serdy, Marion Moore Kendall, Alice Meloy, Peg Pontier-Renery, Liza Jane Wilson Bernard, Wendy Walker. Row 4 – Sandra Simonsen, Jeanne Schubert Barnum, Tina Sponsler Zacco, Martha Ewalt Grant, Connie Burgess Lanzl, Marlie Buehler.

For more photos from reunion weekend, visit www.wilson.edu/grand-reunion

Click here to see more photos from reunion weekend. 

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Exercise as Medicine

By Coleen Dee Berry

Many doors open for Wilson’s exercise science majors.

Interested in becoming a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or personal fitness trainer? Is a career in cardiac rehabilitation or integrative medicine more your style? Or would you like to take the first steps on the path to a chiropractic degree? With a new, dedicated exercise lab and an expanded curriculum, Wilson students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in exercise science have all those options and more.

Exercise science is the gateway to many of the nation’s fastest-growing health and fitness professions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the overall job growth for the health and fitness industries to increase by 15 percent over the next 10 years.

More than Athletics

Last year, the faculty, led by outgoing Associate Professor of Exercise and Sport Science Tonia Hess-Kling, revamped the College’s exercise science major to allow students to choose from three concentrations: human performance, holistic health, and a pre-professional concentration. “Exercise science has expanded far beyond physical therapy and athletic training,” Hess-Kling said. “The field is now offering so many different career opportunities — everything from treating people recovering from illnesses to cardiac rehab to physical fitness for older people — that we wanted to incorporate those different pathways into the program.”

The growth of the health and fitness industry is driven by the needs of an aging population and a continuing emphasis by the medical profession on preventative care. Hess-Kling noted the COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to this growth. “Not only has COVID sparked a new interest in overall well-being, but there’s been a ripple effect as well — do we as a society want to take steps to reduce the risk factors and co-morbidities for COVID, such as obesity and diabetes? One way to do that is through increased physical fitness and exercise,” she said.

“Exercise science has been around for quite a while, but recently the focus has shifted,” she said. “Now it’s not just concentrated on physical activity but includes the overall health of a person and encourages viewing the whole person with a mind-body focus. Exercise training has become an important part of the recovery process for many illnesses and surgeries.”

Professional Options

Wilson students are using the major as a springboard to diverse careers.

In the fall of 2021, Payton Dzieumburski ’19 returned to campus to give a presentation on her work in cardiac rehabilitation and demonstrate those techniques to students in Hess-Kling’s classes.

After completing her Wilson studies, Dzieumburski went to the University of Delaware to obtain her master’s in clinical exercise physiology. One year later, she works for a cardiac rehabilitation unit at MedStar Health in Baltimore, Md. “We prescribe exercise as medicine for anyone who has had any sort of heart event, including heart attacks, stents, open-heart surgeries, and more,” she said. “We also have a step-down rehab program that helps prevent future heart events. Anyone with coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, anyone with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease — we can treat them as well.”

The second part of her job involves stress testing for a wide range of patients — from those suffering end-stage heart failure to professional athletes. Dzieumburski usually does a pre-season/pre-participation screening for professional athletes. “I’ve had the pleasure to work with players from the Baltimore Ravens (football) to the Washington Capitals (hockey) to the Orioles (baseball),” she said.

Exercise science major Colby Maun ’22 interned this past fall at Cressey Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., a high-performance training facility that works with top athletes. “I had the privilege to work with athletes of all skill levels — from middle school to first-ballot Hall of Famers,” Maun said. The internship offered him “the opportunity to work with the coaches, personal trainers, physical therapists, and massage therapists working with professional baseball players such as Justin Verlander, Noah Syndergaard, Miguel Sano, Tres Barrera, Tanner Houck, and Max Scherzer.”

Maun plans to pursue a job in athletic training when he graduates. “My time at Cressey allowed me to develop relationships with professionals who will be lifelong mentors,” he said. “I will be prepared to start in professional baseball development after graduation.”

Senior Kevin Finn is already putting his exercise science major to good use — he has received his personal training certification and is currently working as President Wesley R. Fugate’s trainer. After graduation this May, he intends to pursue a degree to become a physical therapist and work in both the general fitness and sports performance industries.

For the 2021-22 school year, the exercise science program has 34 enrolled students, with 12 seniors graduating this year — the largest graduating class since Hess-Kling began directing the program. Hess-Kling said she had worried that enrollment in the program might drop off because of COVID, but that didn’t materialize, and instead, the program continued to grow. She hopes to hire an additional faculty member for the fall 2022 semester.

A Gleaming New Lab

The program opened its new lab in the Brooks Science Center in the fall of 2019, which was used for one semester before the COVID lockdown began. Hess-Kling said she had to get creative with the online work during the height of the pandemic. “I think it actually worked out rather well. I would have the students practice techniques on their family members — mom, dad, grandma — or their friend or roommate, and take a video to record their process. Then I would assess the video and offer suggestions.” If necessary, the students would repeat the exercise and send another video for evaluation. “So we had them get their family and friends involved in the course,” Hess- Kling said.

Students were able to return to the lab this spring, but COVID forced Hess-Kling to rethink methods of conducting hands-on exercises. “Before, I would have demonstrated a technique on all the students in the class and then have them practice on each other. Now I practice on just one or two students in front of the class to decrease the contact and exposure,” she said. “We’ve been able to continue the hands-on work with lots of masking, shields, hand sanitizer, and washing of hands.”

The lab consists of a lecture room, an athletic training-type evaluation room with three examination tables, and a third room that holds a physiology lab. In the athletic training room, students practice wrapping and taping techniques and conduct different types of orthopedic tests, such as range of motion and strength assessment.

The physiology lab is equipped with two treadmills and two exercise bikes. Students use the iWorx software system to measure heartbeat and glucose, lactic acid, and oxygen levels while other classmates use the exercise equipment.

COVID restrictions also deprived students of the chance to take part in outside observation work, as local hospitals and clinics suspended student participation programs. “But the local fitness, physical therapy, and chiropractic communities in Chambersburg have continued to offer our students internships. We are very grateful to them for all their support over the past two years,” Hess-Kling said.

Before the pandemic, exercise science majors were able to help health workers at the Menno Haven retirement community in Chambersburg with fitness assessments for the residents. “Moving forward, I would like to see us go back to that kind of community-oriented work,” Hess- Kling said. “I want our students to have more community outreach experience. It’s been very difficult with COVID to accomplish that.”


Three Concentrations, Three Pathways

PRE-PROFESSIONAL
This pre-professional concentration prepares students to study and build a strong science and human physiology foundation. This concentration is geared toward those students seeking to apply to graduate school to become a health science or allied health professional in the fields of athletic training, physical therapy, chiropractic, or medicine.

HUMAN PERFORMANCE
This concentration emphasizes learning how to work with people with a variety of health and fitness goals. Students learn foundational knowledge and skills to help them assess human performance and develop strategies for improving physical fitness and performance.

HOLISTIC HEALTH
This concentration emphasizes exploring wellness from a holistic perspective. Students are taught how to live a healthy life, manage stress, understand the benefits of physical activity, and learn about complementary and alternative medicine beyond traditional Western Medicine techniques.

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Purposeful Philanthropy

By Pamela Francis Kiehl ’66, Everett-Pomeroy Trustee
Catherine Sweeney and the Wilson-Sri Lanka Connection.

Between 1972 and 2010, 35 young women from Sri Lanka came to  Wilson College. The story of how Wilson became a higher education destination for young women from the island nation in the Indian Ocean begins with Catherine “Kay” Hauberg Sweeney (1914-1995).

Nelu Senanayake de Silva ’75 and Catherine Sweeney.

In 1972, Sweeney fully funded the first Sri Lankan student to attend Wilson, Nelu Senanayake de Silva ’75. Over the next 20-plus years, Sweeney would fund seven more students. At the same time, other young Sri Lankans began to apply. While word of mouth and the College’s reputation surely played a role in attracting them to Wilson, the story of the “Sweeney Scholars” is largely one of friendships and family relationships.

Botanist and gardener, philanthropist, writer, patron of the arts, world traveler, Wilson honorary degree recipient, and Trustee Emerita, Sweeney packed a lot into a lifetime. In addition to these accomplishments, her remarkable Wilson-Sri Lankan legacy epitomizes her foresight, kindness, and generosity.

Sweeney didn’t set out to fund deserving students. This expression of her philanthropy began while on a visit to Sri Lanka. There she was introduced to many prominent families by Christobel Weerasinghe, wife of a former Sri Lanka ambassador to the U.S. and a very close friend of the Sweeneys. Weerasinghe introduced her to the Senanayakes and their daughter Nelu who hoped to study in the U.S. At the time, the Sri Lankan government had imposed currency restrictions that limited the amount of money that could be transferred out of the country. In effect, Nelu and students like her couldn’t study abroad. Sweeney, recognizing the young woman’s potential, offered to fund her education at Wilson College, thus introducing the College to Sri Lanka.

From left to right, standing: Cheika Lakdini Hewagama ’04, Chethika Hapugalle Ratwatte ’95, Rita M. Dibble, director of Alumnae Relations, and Chaitri Hapugalle ’92. Seated: Dr. Natasha Peiris Fernando ’93, Premali Wijenaike Munasinha ’81, and Nelu Senanayake de Silva ’75.

Nelu’s mother, Nalini Senanayake, later influenced at least three of the other Sweeney scholars to apply to Wilson: neighbor Chandi Amarasinghe Kadirgamar ’79, niece Premali Wijenaike Munasinha ’81, and daughter of family friends Natasha Peiris Fernando ’93. Natasha believes Senanayake arranged her scholarship. Premali received a letter from the College granting hers. (Ayoma Fernando, ’82, daughter of other family friends, applied on Senanayake’s recommendation.) Chandi and Premali’s parents were also family friends of the Weerasinghes. While there are no written records of how students were selected, I assume that Sweeney considered these two women’s suggestions to select those she supported in consultation with the College.

Natalie Gudewardene-Palleros, ’85, knew Sweeney as a child and received her scholarship due to the “good offices” of her uncle Larry Schokman, Sweeney’s colleague. Ranmali Hapugalle, ’89, was brought to Sweeney and Wilson’s attention by another friend. Sweeney later met the Hapugalle family in 1988 while Ranmali was a student at Wilson and directly offered to pay for sister Chaitri’s education and later younger sister Chethika’s.

At One Grand Reunion, from left to right, Ayoma Fernando ’82, Pamela Francis Kiehl ’66, and Premali Wijenaike Munasinha ’81.

Although the girls all attended private schools and could certainly have attended university in Sri Lanka, Sweeney clearly saw the advantage of an international education for them which was also their preference. Wilson, a women’s college, appealed to their parents. And by the 1970s, Wilson needed students as enrollment was declining. Sri Lanka’s civil war (1983 to 2009) made Sweeney’s assistance even more important to the girls who attended Wilson during that time.

It is also important to note that assigning motivation to Sweeney’s efforts in all her endeavors is largely speculation. Unfortunately, many of her private papers, which may have revealed her thinking, were destroyed following her passing. Very few who knew her well remain other than her children, and the girls she funded are our best source.

Who was Kay Sweeney?

Interviewees described Sweeney as intelligent, insightful, kind, friendly, generous, and self-effacing. She often donated to charitable causes anonymously. She preferred action to discussion, and accounts of good works shed some light on her personality.

The Sweeney scholars, who visited her Florida home during holidays, attest to all the above qualities. They were in awe of her wealth (“she was the humblest millionaire”) but even more so of her ability to interact with them as young women far from home — preparing meals, taking them Christmas shopping, and introducing them to the custom of filling Christmas stockings with unexpected treats. Sweeney was exceedingly modest, often describing herself as “just a lady gardener.”

Catherine Hauberg was raised in Rock Island, Ill., and studied botany at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and graduate-level zoology at the University of Arizona. She was heiress to the Weyerhaeuser lumber fortune (the company was co-founded by her maternal grandfather Frederick Denkman with his brother-in-law Frederick Weyerhaeuser) and was reportedly one of the wealthiest women in the U.S. when she became a Wilson trustee in 1967. Her father had instilled a sense of curiosity and her mother an obligation to help others. She was the mother of five and a widow at the young age of 53.

Her New York Times obituary and a Kampong publication describe her achievements (she is best known as ‘The Savior of The Kampong’) and include her honorary doctorate from Wilson. For Wilson, however, her support of the Sri Lankan students had far-reaching value and lasting impact — a demonstration of her insight and vision.

She married Edward C. Sweeney in 1938. He (Williams College, Northwestern Law School graduate and professor, U.S. Navy Air during WWII) became a successful aviation lawyer in Washington, D.C., after the war. He was also president of the Explorers Club of America for two years and funded the Sweeney Medal awarded by the club. He died in 1967 at 61.

Philanthropy

The Sweeneys’ shared interests led to promoting many causes supported primarily by Catherine’s fortune. One example was financing several expeditions to Antarctica led by Finn and Edith Ronne in the 1940s (Ronne, a Norwegian-born U.S. citizen, was earlier part of two Richard E. Byrd expeditions to the South Pole), and thus the Antarctic’s Sweeney Mountains were named, with five peaks named for their children.

In 1963, Sweeney was approached by Elva Fairchild, who was familiar with her philanthropy and interest in gardens. Fairchild asked her to help save her father-in-law David Fairchild’s Coconut Grove, Fla., home and tropical garden from developers. Fairchild was a famous botanist and international plant explorer who introduced over 30,000 species to the U.S. The Sweeneys had visited The Kampong years earlier, so she was intrigued and agreed immediately, thus preserving the property, which later was designated part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Interest in Sri Lanka

Sweeney visited Sri Lanka at least three times — in 1967, 1971, and 1988. The 1963 purchase of The Kampong tropical garden — a natural extension of her interest in botany and gardening — could certainly have piqued her interest in tropical parts of Asia. Soon after purchasing the garden, the Sweeneys became friendly with Oliver Weerasinghe, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) Ambassador to the U.S. from 1965-70, and his wife, Christobel. Also, one of Sweeney’s sons, Edward, had a connection to the island nation. His mother-in-law, Elizabeth Stoen, was serving a tour at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo. These factors likely influenced her decision to travel to Sri Lanka, where she further developed her interest in tropical plants and the country.

On Sweeney’s first visit in 1967, Stoen asked her friend tea plantation manager, horticulturalist, and rugby player Larry Schokman to host Sweeney at his plantation. He did and escorted her around the island to share his tropical flora expertise. Schokman and Sweeney developed a close friendship and exchanged subsequent visits. Schokman married Colleen Sheridan, an American assigned to the embassy. They relocated to Miami in 1974, where he became superintendent and, eventually, director of The Kampong. He passed away in 2017.

Commitment to Wilson

Sweeney, a wealthy Presbyterian who served on many national boards, joined Wilson’s Board of Trustees in 1967 at the invitation of Rev. Edward L. R. Elson, a Wilson Trustee, her minister, close friend, and later U.S. Senate Chaplain. Donation records prior to 1983 are not available, but Sweeney contributed $50,000 in the 1980s, a very significant amount at the time. From 1972 to 73, she was a member of the Wilson College Society of Donors and was honored at the annual Donor Dinner in 1993. Paying all expenses for eight Sri Lankan students over the course of 23 years (31 years of tuition/room & board/travel) ended when she passed away.

A point of interest is that there was no formal mechanism that established funding for a scholarship. Sweeney simply paid expenses directly, including travel. In addition, she funded a junior semester in Italy for Natalie Gunawardene-Palleros ’85 and offered to continue paying education costs elsewhere for Premali Wijenaike Munasinha ’81 if the College had closed in 1979. That Sweeney was not an alumna made her commitment to Wilson even more dramatic.

Although Wilson was close to peak enrollment when Sweeney joined the board, the higher education landscape was changing, with most single-sex colleges and universities going coed. As a viable choice for women seeking a women’s only education, Wilson struggled to maintain enrollment at an adequate level. Sweeney was a board member when the vote to close the College took place in 1979. She and other Trustees had written a letter requesting a special board meeting to discuss the situation. She attended this March 10, 1979, New York City meeting. Voting records are embargoed until 2029, so we do not know her position. She did accept a seat on a reconstituted board for a year under the leadership of Nan Clarkson, however, and continued to support the College and the Sri Lankan students financially until her death in 1995 of heart failure.

Lasting Legacy

President Gwen Jensen visited Sri Lanka in 1993. Sweeney intended to meet her there but was too ill to travel. Jensen’s trip was nonetheless quite successful. Despite the ongoing civil war, the Jensens were able to travel to much of the island. Jensen met alumnae, their family members, and other influential Sri Lankans. Gayani Fernando ’99 reported that she applied after seeing an article about Jensen’s visit in a local newspaper. Chethika Hapugalle Ratwatte’95 is credited for Gwen and Gordon Jensen venturing there by convincing her that tacking Sri Lanka onto a Chambersburg sister-city trip to Gotemba, Japan, would be a minimal expense. On that trip, Pres. Jensen said she realized the power of Sweeney’s philanthropy as she saw for herself the results of those efforts and concluded that giving should be undertaken to achieve a desired goal — purposeful philanthropy. In this case, the lasting benefits for the women Catherine Sweeney supported, for other women who followed, for Sri Lanka, and especially for Wilson in broadening its diversity and international scope, are immeasurable and an excellent example of the impact of a single individual.

Acknowledgments

Without the enthusiastic assistance of Premali Wijenaike Munasinha ’81, I doubt the other seven Sweeney scholars, or many of the others we’ve found, would have cooperated so readily for this article. Premali’s relentless personal and social media skills helped expand Wilson’s list of 21 Sri Lankan alumnae to 35. Amy Ensley, director of the Hankey Center, provided considerable background and research. I am deeply grateful to both.

Katie Shank in Alumnae Relations also helped search for former students, as did my husband, Bill, who spent several hours at the Hankey Center pouring through old yearbooks. There are many others to thank. Past presidents Donald Bletz, Mary Linda Meriam Armacost, Gwen Jensen, and Lorna Edmondson, former Alumnae Relations director Rita Dibble who visited Sri Lanka in 2011, and former board members Nancy Besch ’48, Ellen Van Looy Reed ’53, and Martha Baum Walker ’69, gladly spoke with me. Chief of Staff Melissa Imes helped reach out to many. Outside the Wilson network Colleen Schokman, widow of Larry Schokman, Sweeney’s son-in-law Eric Fraunfelter, Deb Kuntzi, Executive Director of the Hauberg Estate, and The Kampong staff contributed.


The Kampong

The Kampong was the home and garden of David G. Fairchild (1869-1959), U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher and plant explorer. Fairchild was responsible for importing thousands of tropical plants to the U.S. for propagation as Director of the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction and brought Japanese cherry trees to Washington DC. In addition to developing an experimental government facility in Miami’s Coral Gables (now the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden), he built a home, The Kampong, inspired by Indonesian design and created a personal garden in the Coconut Grove area of Miami. The Sweeneys visited once. After Fairchild’s death, his wife Marion Bell Fairchild (daughter of Alexander Graham Bell) maintained the property. Upon her death in 1962, her children, unable to assume the responsibility, put the property on the market. Unfortunately, only developers were interested.

Daughter-in-law Elva Fairchild knowing of Sweeney’s philanthropy and interest in gardening brought the property to her attention. Sweeney purchased the compound without hesitation in 1963 and devoted herself to retaining and enhancing Fairchild’s vision, working hard to preserve its integrity as a tropical retreat. Eventually, it became part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
Saving The Kampong is Sweeney’s most notably recognized achievement.

Pamela’s Story

Researching this story has been a fascinating journey connecting me with Sri Lanka alumnae, Wilson past presidents, staff, and Sweeney’s family and friends. It also piqued my curiosity about The Kampong leading to a visit there in November. Also, in November, Premali and Chethika arranged a free-flowing Zoom for seven of the eight Sweeney scholars (all but Natasha on hospital duty) and me stretching over several time zones — Bangalore/Colombo; Singapore/Perth; and NYC/Sarasota — a distinct highlight of the project.

A week after arriving in Colombo in August 1975 (my husband was the US Embassy Press Officer), Bill and I were invited to Kandy to visit the American Cultural Center, attend the annual Perahera (a magnificent procession featuring Kandyan dancers, Buddha’s “sacred tooth,” and 76 ornately decorated elephants), and dine with the local Lions Club. To my right at dinner was a charming gentleman, Chandra Wijenaike, who took great interest in my story, soon learning that I’d attended a small women’s college. After a good deal of probing (“you’ve never heard of it”), I told him where. His response: “I knew it! My niece just graduated from Wilson.” Soon after, I invited Nelu Senanayake ’75, her mother Nalini, and their neighbor, Chandi Amerasinghe ’79, for tea. Nelu left shortly for graduate school at Cambridge, and Chandi for Wilson. Forty-some years later, I’m following up.

Other Sri Lankans attended Wilson over the years, so when planning a trip in 2006, I asked Alumnae Relations for a list of those in Colombo. Six or seven attended a party hosted by Embassy friends. At dinner, the next evening, a former Sri Lankan cultural assistant at the US embassy remarked out of the blue, “It’s wonderful what that Wilson College has done for the women of Sri Lanka.” She didn’t know I was an alum.
Later I tried to learn more: I met student Mariza Cooray ’10 and Chaitri ’92 (when she received her AAWC award) and arranged to meet Premali at a reunion, not knowing she was the daughter of my dinner companion of decades earlier. I also heard about a woman who provided scholarships to Sri Lankan girls. Finally, in March 2020, Chaitri posted a Facebook tribute commemorating Sweeney’s passing 25 years earlier. I began researching and, with Hankey Archive Director Amy Ensley’s help, learned enough about Sweeney to think her story and that of the Sri Lanka students was worth pursuing.


Meet The Sweeney Scholars

There are many similarities among the students Sweeney supported. All attended private schools (five from Ladies College, Colombo) and, as excellent students, were destined for university. They were engaged Wilson students who enhanced the intellectual life of the College, fully participating
in the experience. They were also on campus during years of Wilson’s lowest enrollments.

They, and many Sri Lanka students who followed, recall with gratitude religion Prof. Harry M. Buck and his wife as friends and mentors to foreign students and supporters of Muhibbah (international) Club. Others mentioned fondly were Elizabeth Boyd, Eleanor Mattes, John Applegate, Helen Nutting, and Chambersburg host families.

Nelu Senanayake de Silva ’75 graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude in biology and chemistry. She received the Wilson College Fellowship for Graduate Studies and went on to King’s College, Cambridge, where she was awarded a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Before retiring, she was a research officer at the Ceylon Institute of Scientific & Industrial Research and a Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Sri Lanka Medical Facility. A devoted mother of two, she lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Chandi Amarasinghe Kadirgamar ’79 majored in English literature, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. Among her most vivid Wilson memories are traveling to NYC in March 1979 to protest the Trustees’ decision to close the College. She earned a master’s in public administration at NYU and spent 37 years as a program evaluator for the United Nations. During the later years of her career, her emphasis was on gender and women’s empowerment and disability rights. She is the mother of two adult children.

Premali Wijenaike Munasinha ’81, Nelu’s cousin, is the only Sweeney scholar from Kandy, Sri Lanka. She never met Sweeney. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a major in fine art and a minor in mathematics and took an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, where she was hosted by the late Mary Lou Kerfoot Wells, ‘65. An accomplished professional artist, she briefly taught art and math in Kandy and folk art in Australia. Both her children attend college in Australia, and she holds dual Sri Lankan and Australian citizenship. She credits the College with teaching her independence and the ability to think for herself.

Ranmali Hapugalle ’89, the first of the three Hapugalle sisters sponsored by Sweeney, majored in fine arts and received two service awards and the Melahan Award for excellence in art history and studio art. She obtained a master’s in art education from the University of Cincinnati and earned an MBA in general administration from the Postgraduate Institute of Management of Sri Jayawardenepura. Throughout her career as a K-12 visual arts teacher, she has served primarily at international schools. Following the 2004 Asian tsunami that devastated parts of Sri Lanka, she established a fundraising effort with friends to build a school for girls near Galle.

Natalie Gunewardene-Palleros ’85 knew Sweeney since childhood through her uncle, Larry Schokman, whom she recently learned had asked Sweeney to support her education at Wilson. She played hockey, sang in the choir, and helped establish the international club, Muhibbah. She majored in creative arts and geography. She has combined teaching university-level landscape architecture with therapeutic horticulture — helping the disadvantaged and mentally ill through gardening. She currently works in the General Court Intervention Program, which attempts to keep people, especially Indigenous Australians, from incarceration. She is the mother of three adult children and grandmother of two. She has lived in Perth, Australia, for 25 years.

Chaitri Hapugalle ’92 majored in business and economics, graduating Cum Laude with honors in economics and other recognitions, including an alumnae scholarship. She served as president of the Muhibbah and Business clubs and was a South Hall R.A. She is grateful to former Alumnae Trustee Ellen Van Looy Reed ’53 for sponsoring Wilson’s participation in the Center for Study of the Presidency that she attended twice. She earned a master’s in public policy in international trade and finance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In 2014 she was honored by the AAWC with the Distinguished Young Alumna Award. She is the founder of the Peace-Led Climate Friendly Sustainable Development Forum, an NGO promoting connectivity, healthcare, and environmental projects in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific region.

Natasha Peiris Fernando ’93 received a first-year award for mathematics and graduated Cum Laude in biology. She was permitted to take extra credits each semester, graduating in three years. She is grateful to professors Brad Engle and Deb Austin for their part in making her lifelong dream to become a doctor a reality and fondly remembers South Hall friends. She earned a degree in general medicine from the University of Southampton, U.K., continued her post-graduate education in the U.K. and became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians. She obtained a fellowship from the Royal College of Edinburgh. For the past 17 years, Dr. Peiris has been a specialist in internal medicine at Arts Surgical Hospital, Colombo. She and her attorney husband have one son.

Chethika Hapugalle Ratwatte ’95 was the last Sweeney Scholar (Sweeney passed away during her senior year). She majored in history/political science, minored in studio art, and received a distinguished service award her senior year. She got a master’s in international relations from Istanbul Bilgi University and then spent nine years as head of regional marketing and communications for Alpha Asia Airports Group. For the past 12 years, she has served as regional general manager for a Sri Lanka paper company, Double A Pulp & Paper. A passionate political activist, she is married and lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka


The Other 27 Wilson Students From Sri Lanka
Including the eight Sweeney Scholars, 35 women from Sri Lanka attended Wilson. Note that we do not have contact or other information for all of these alumnae.

Iromie De Silva Wijewardena, 1981, Colombo, Sri Lanka, artist

Prebja Thanjaratnaam, 1981

Malathi Jayawickrama, 1981

Ayoma Fernando, 1982, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Principal/Co-Founder, ABC Montessori School

Sriani Gunawardena, 1984

Sivadarshini (Darshini) Pathmanathan Lacey, 1984 or 85

Janitha Dias Bandaranyake, 1985, Mt. Lavinia, Sri Lanka, retired teacher, B&B proprietor, and cancer helpline volunteer

Lilamani de Soysa, 1985, Lausanne, Switzerland, independent sport consultant/executive; board member interagency working group for women in sport

Sharline Adams, 1988

Sonali Kuruppu Jayasinghe, 1989, Colombo, Sri Lanka, senior VP for human relations, DFCC Bank PLC Colombo

Avanti Moonesinghe Esufally, 1991, Colombo, Sri Lanka, economic analyst, entrepreneur, web content developer

Sepalika DeSilva, 1991

Danthika Wickremesekera Borst, 1993, Atlanta, GA/San Antonio, Texas, associate broker/realtor

Eshani Wijeyawardana Kalpage, 1994, Johannesburg, South Africa, clinical social worker/psychotherapist

Soshana Wijeratne Austin, 1993 or 1995, London, U.K., owner, Rasai Ceylon Restaurant

Shaemali DeZilwa Sumanatilleke, 1996

Nikula Fernando, 1998, Chantilly, Va.

Prashanthi Tehanee Ratwatte, 1999, Colombo, Sri Lanka, higher education administrator

Pushpakala Sinnathuray, 1999

Gayani Fernando, 1999, Pennington, N.J., neuro researcher, Bristol Myers Squibb

Himanthi Wanninayake, 2000

Sharmila Wickramasooriya, 2000

Indunil Ranaviraja, 2001

Aruni Liyanage, 2004, Potomac, Md., director of partnerships & development, University Research Co. LLC

Cheika Hewagama, 2004, Sydney, Australia, stay at home mom, former senior economist, Central Bank of Sri Lanka

Charmain Fernando Johnson, 2008, Oklahoma, post-doctoral fellow in cardiovascular research, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation

Mariza Cooray, 2010, Canberra, Australia, consultant/economic adviser for Pacific countries, Asia Development Bank, part-time graduate student

 

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