Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chatham Hall gets record-setting endowment

Chatham Hall, along with Hargrave Academy, will be among the first casualties of any uranium mining at Coles Hill. Their campuses are too close to Coles Hill to survive the radon and the blasting. Students' lives would be too endangered by the contamination to allow them to live in the idyllic, historic settings.

Chatham Hall gets record-setting endowment

Elizabeth “Betty” Beckwith Nilsen, circa 1931.

Amid gasps and applause from Chatham Hall’s 129 students, it was learned that an alumnae who graduated in 1931 has bequeathed $31 million to the school.

Rector Gary Fountain, head of the independent private girls’ school in Chatham, called the bequest “one of the most important announcements in the history of Chatham Hall.” He also said it is the “largest gift in the history of girls’ schools.”

The gift is from the estate of Elizabeth “Betty” Beckwith Nilsen. Fountain said she maintained contact with the different heads of the school over time, and with her former classmates.

Fountain said Nilsen told him, “Chatham Hall is the best thing that ever happened to me.” He said the school community deeply influenced her, convincing her of the importance of all-girls schools.

Dora Thomas, chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, told the students the endowment shows “what happens here stays with you for the rest of your life.”

There are no immediate plans to spend the money, Fountain said.

With this year’s budget already in place, “we’re going to spend the next nine months thinking about what to do with this gift,” he said.

Fountain said the school has been building its endowment fund for many years, and that it totaled just over $20 million before this gift. Endowment funds are invested, and the school draws about 4 percent of the fund annually — an “extremely prudent” amount — each year to use for operating expenses. With this endowment, the fund will top $51 million.

“Through judicious planning, we will honor Mrs. Nilsen in a way that acknowledges how she has honored us by expanding the basis for a secure and dynamic future for Chatham Hall,” Fountain said.

Nilsen was born in 1914 in Toledo, Ohio. Her father, Laurance Beckwith, was a stockbroker who invested in the start-up company that became Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

The biography on her, written by the school, states that Nilsen arrived at Chatham Hall in the middle of her junior year, and while she enjoyed the activities the school offered, “… it was the Chatham Hall community that was transformational: the life-long friends she made, the way in which people treated each other with respect and friendship, and the high idealism and honor of the school. These characteristics stayed with her for a lifetime and kept Chatham Hall alive to her, a fact to which her family attests.”

Elizabeth Beckwith married R.A. Nilsen in 1940, her second marriage. She had one son from her first marriage.

The Nilsens retired to Florida and had a summer home in Wyoming. She died in October of 2006, the age of 92. Her husband died in March, at the age of 97, and the school was informed about the endowment.

Fountain said they did not announce the gift sooner because they wanted to be certain the transfer would go smoothly. He said the school’s lawyers approved the announcement, and that the school has already received some of the funds.

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