The Enduring Collegiate Spirit

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
         James 3:13
To say that Ann Lee Saunders Brown lived a life of significance epitomized by dignity and grace might be the understatement of the ages.
Should the 1936 Collegiate School graduate read those words, however, she would no doubt smile a bit self-consciously, offer her thanks, and then say something akin to, “Well, I don’t know about that.”
The rest of us do, though.
You see, Ann Lee was one of the best. She was kind, gentle, positive, witty, and unfailingly gracious to those who were fortunate enough to cross paths with her, whether briefly or over many, many years.
Indeed, Ann Lee, who passed away Saturday, February 22, at the age of 101, was truly a treasure, not just to the Collegiate Family but to all who knew her.
“She was a sweetheart, a real Southern lady,” said her good friend Alex Smith, a ’65 graduate and, until his 2016 retirement, his alma mater’s long-time vice-president for development. “She was well traveled, very independent, very generous. And she loved her school.”
As a student, Ann Lee was quite involved in the life of the Collegiate School for Girls. She even kept a scrapbook which chronicled her experience and provided a window into the day-to-day activities at 1619 Monument Avenue.
One fall morning in 2006, she dropped by the alumni office and shared the thick volume filled with memorabilia and regaled her audience of admirers with insights, observations, and recollections of events as if they had occurred the day before.
Her treasure trove included a wealth of newspaper clippings, letters, snapshots, programs from campus events, and articles from The Candle, the forerunner of The Match.
As testimony to the respect she earned, Ann Lee received the 1936 Rosemary Award. The medal is in her scrapbook. She served as captain of the Greens in their intramural competition with the Golds. Though she always begged to differ, she was an outstanding four-sport athlete whose teammates elected her captain of the basketball team for two years and field hockey team for one.
During that visit, she shared stories of basketball practice on the rooftop court and games played at the Fifth Street YWCA. She spoke with delight of a 20-16 victory over St. Catherine’s in ’36 which avenged a 25-24 defeat the previous season.
Her eyes really lit up when she recalled a 2-2 tie with the heavily favored Saints in a 1935 field hockey game, but we had to read the newspaper account to learn that none other than a senior left wing named Ann Lee Saunders scored the tying goal in the waning seconds.
Ann Lee also played tennis and competed in archery. She still has all of her varsity letters. In 2006, it was no surprise, except to her, that she was inducted into Collegiate’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Ann Lee spent much of her adult life away from Richmond. She traveled widely with her husband, the late Charles L. Brown, who served as CEO and Chairman of AT&T and oversaw the divestiture of the company in the 1980’s. She returned to Richmond after his death in 2003.
In 2015, Collegiate’s centennial year, Ann Lee participated in a delightful, unrehearsed video interview with Mike Henry ’84 that honored her life of service and the generous gift she had recently bestowed to create the Saunders Family Library in the Sharp Academic Commons.
“I didn’t want to just send a check because it’s not just money,” she began. “It’s love that I give.”
Then, she shared a hand-written note she had sent to Alex Smith that accompanied her bequest.
“This gift,” she read with reverence, “honors my beloved Town School teachers to whom I attribute The Enduring Collegiate Spirit. This gift is an expression of my faith in Collegiate: the values it teaches, the guidance and strength it imparts, and the enriching feeling that one has from being part of this School.”
How does a community thank a benefactor whose gifts far exceed the tangible?
“I don’t feel that I’ve done anything very special to be thanked for,” she told her interviewer in vintage Ann Lee fashion. “I’m thankful to be able to do whatever I did. People who are fortunate enough to have more than they need to live should give back to where we’ve been given our source of strength and wellbeing. Gratitude is life-giving: to be grateful for what you have and for what you can do.”
The logical assumption would be that the library bears Ann Lee’s name. She dismissed that notion, of course. The “compromise” was “Saunders Family Library” with the understanding that the beltline around the building include the names of those who had inspired and mentored her: the Collegiate faculty in 1936.
“There was the Depression,” Ann Lee explained. “I know it to be true that many times these teachers weren’t paid because there wasn’t any money. They were so full of heart. They were so giving of love and so caring about the children that Collegiate would stay alive. I feel like they’re the ones who should be honored.”
Near the conclusion of the interview, Ann Lee fielded one final question: What advice would you give today’s Collegiate students?
“Be true to yourself,” she responded. “We each have something that’s special to do in this world and to give in this world.”
Throughout her life, Ann Lee Saunders Brown did good, she did well, and she gave of herself in so many wonderful ways. She represents, truly, the very best of The Enduring Collegiate Spirit.
     ~ Weldon Bradshaw
(The funeral service for Ann Lee Saunders Brown will be at 2 p.m., Saturday, February 29, at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, 12291 River Road, Richmond, VA 23238.)
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  • Allison Williams
    Every time I walked past the names of those teachers of 1936, it made me aware of the responsibility teachers carry to support and inspire students. What an enduring testament she has left. May Mrs. Brown Rest In Peace.
  • Jill Hunter
    She was one special and unique lady. The Collegiate family is lucky to have known and loved her!