Love of liberal arts drives professors’ donation

Posted on May 17, 2012 by Janika Carey

Retired Sweet Briar professors Sue and Lee Piepho recently committed to a bequest of $1.5 million to the College. The endowed fund will support programs and facilities that have been part of the Piephos’ lives here for more than 40 years.

There’s the Lower Lake they used to swim in during the summers, and the campus gardens Sue adores. Part of the money is going toward preserving Sweet Briar’s natural and landscaped environment.

Sue and Lee Peipho
An avid gardener, Sue cultivates her love of nature in their home, as well. The Piephos’ living room is like a botanical garden, with a variety of plants climbing almost to the ceiling, and giant windows framing the greenery outside. The house, designed by local architect Hal Craddock in 1990, sits in a field above the lake. Local river stone embellishes the fireplace in the living room, which was built to face the fireplace in the historic boathouse.

While the connection between the two structures was Craddock’s idea, the Piephos put a lot of thought into the design of their home, as well. Making sure that it fit into the existing landscape was one important aspect. Utilizing its environment was another.

“[We wanted to] bring the outside in,” Sue explains, and she’s not just talking about plants. The living room windows face south, thus allowing for plenty of light and the use of solar energy. “The quarry tile and southern exposure of the solarium gives not only a delightful environment for my plants, but low energy bills in the winter. On a sunny day in mid-winter, the house gets warmer than our thermostat setting, and it is fun to feel like you are in the Caribbean on sunny days.”

All over the house, stacks of books rich with travel destinations, history and literature in foreign languages bear witness to the world outside of Sweet Briar. Not surprisingly, the Piephos have decided to reserve some of the endowment for international scholarships. It’s also a very personal connection: Their love story began at sea.

“We met on a boat going to Europe, between sophomore and junior years in college,” Sue says.

Sue stayed with a German family for six weeks to advance her knowledge of the German language, while Lee road-tripped across Europe in a Volkswagen convertible. They later met up in Paris and London.

“The experience in my case was transformative,” Lee says. “I learned a vast amount about people and cultures.” For Sue, this was her second time abroad; she spent ninth grade at the International School in Geneva, Switzerland, and traveled through Europe at that time.

The Piephos have since traveled to various places around the world, including Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Greece, Sweden, China, Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

“We can appreciate how much you gain from going to another country, and I think you look at your country in a different way after you’ve been abroad for an extended period of time,” Sue says. “I think it’s an experience we want students to have — both foreign students coming here and Sweet Briar students going abroad.”

Another project dear to the Piephos’ hearts is the planned addition to Sweet Briar’s library. For many years, Cochran has served as an extension of Lee’s own library at home. A former English professor with a focus on Shakespeare and Renaissance culture, Lee still uses it frequently for his research, but also donates his own books to it.

“Historically, I’ve been a big supporter of the library,” he says. “It probably comes with the discipline. I’ve always thought that libraries have a special place. A library is and should be a cultural center of a college.”

Lee, who is the only professor to have won the Student Government Association’s Excellence in Teaching award twice, came to Sweet Briar in 1969 and retired from teaching in 2005 — two years before Sue stopped teaching chemistry.

When planning how to divide up the endowment, it was clear that the sciences should receive part of it, too. The discipline had grown up with the Piephos over the years.

“When I first came, the expectation for women in science was minimal,” says Sue, who started teaching in the early 1970s. “Most Sweet Briar students hadn’t had much science or math in high school. They didn’t have to take chemistry; eighty percent of students had never had chemistry, and fewer still physics or calculus.”

Today, most high schools require students to take classes in chemistry and other sciences, and the curriculum at Sweet Briar is much more investigative than it used to be. Sue was instrumental in introducing an intermediate lab course for juniors during the early 1990s.

“That really opened up our curriculum … now, there’s a lot of hands-on experience students can get,” she says. “I think science is a tough nut to crack at the big universities and the crazy thing is, these universities have the big graduate programs, but they themselves have surprisingly few majors so they have to recruit grad students from liberal arts colleges.”

Sue and Lee Peipho
Sweet Briar is one of them.

“We really put forth some excellent grads,” Sue says, and she also knows why.

“I think they get to know the faculty, and the faculty give them a lot of encouragement, but we don’t let them shortcut, we make them really do the work. We really expect a lot from the students. There’s sort of a can-do attitude here.”

Both Sue and Lee went to small liberal arts colleges themselves, Sue to Smith College and Lee to Kenyon College.

“We believe in liberal arts colleges, and we made that decision pretty early on in our lives,” Lee says.

But it’s not just the College’s academic and natural landscape they feel connected to. It’s the whole package. The community, they both say, is like family. And how could it not be, after spending most of their lives here? It’s a place that has nurtured them with its beauty, inspired through its intellectual community and provided lifelong friendships across the disciplines. It has given them the space they needed to do their research, and the luxury to focus on quality rather than quantity. It has allowed them to think outside the box.

“The College gives you an incredible amount of freedom to define both what you teach and your research,” Sue says. “We’ve seen the College really make a difference in people’s lives.”

At Sweet Briar, Sue and Lee had the freedom to shape their programs’ futures. Sue helped reform the sciences; Lee was instrumental in shaping the European civilization program (the foundation for the Medieval/Renaissance minor) and also started the film minor at the College. None of this, they say, would have been likely at a big university. Working at a small liberal arts college, they’ve been able to interact with everyone in the community on a personal level, including the students, many of whom they’re still in touch with.

“It’s always a pleasure when alums come back and you see what’s happened to them,” Lee says. “They wind up being interesting women. Sweet Briar turns out individuals.”

Sue agrees. “Sweet Briar is pretty darn unique.”