Reviving a Wesleyan Tradition

On October 15, 2014, Wesleyan College will revive Benefactors’ Day, a tradition for much of the College’s history and one that President Ruth Knox ’75 believes is worthy of revisiting.

“For many years Wesleyan set aside one day each year to celebrate all those who had given to the College. Wesleyan is blessed to have true, faithful, and loyal donors who deserve the gratitude of the entire Wesleyan community. With Phase I of the FAST Forward Campaign coming to a successful close, this fall seems like the perfect time to bring back Benefactors’ Day for a new generation. For the many alumnae and friends of the College who give to Wesleyan so that our students can enjoy a first-rate experience, we can never say ‘thank you’ often enough.”

Benefactors’ Day was for many years held on May 12, the birthday of George I. Seney, Wesleyan’s first great benefactor. A New York banker, son of a Methodist minister, and philanthropist, Seney happened upon a copy of a sermon delivered by Bishop Atticus G. Haygood, the president of Emory College (1875-1884). The sermon inspired Seney to support Southern education by donating a series of gifts to Emory. When Seney asked Haygood to recommend a women’s college in the South, Haygood suggested Wesleyan. As a Methodist and the brother of Laura Askew Haygood from the Class of 1865, Haygood was quite familiar with Wesleyan, and in 1881 the College began receiving a series of gifts from Seney that ultimately totaled $125,000, an enormous sum in that day.

In 1943 Benefactors’ Day was changed to October 15, the date in 1836 when the cornerstone was laid for the first building on College Street. (That act was one of faith and determination since the College was not officially chartered until December 23, 1836.) The new date recognizes that Wesleyan has from its beginning benefitted from the generosity of donors who shared a common interest in quality higher education for women.

According to historical records Benefactors’ Day was a school holiday with “poems read and ice cream served on the campus.” Later it was a “half-holiday” and finally a convocation with a speaker. Wesleyan has not regularly observed Benefactors’ Day since the early 1960s. Plans are to make the new Benefactors’ Day a celebration that involves every constituency of the College: alumnae, students, faculty, staff, administration, and community friends.

President Knox envisions the day as an opportunity to educate our students on the importance of philanthropy in the life of the College. “For students who may not even realize that Wesleyan is a non-profit institution, the event could be a real eye-opener. For example, some students may be unaware that tuition covers only slightly more than half the cost of a Wesleyan education. That gap is covered by our generous benefactors, past and present, who have shared our vision and our commitment to be truly ‘first for women.’ Their gifts provide the scholarships, build the buildings, and make the student experience possible. Whether the gift is $100,000 for an endowed scholarship or $10 for our annual fund, we want to celebrate our donors!”

Stay tuned. In the coming weeks and months you will be hearing more about ways you can participate in Benefactors’ Day.