SOUTHERN VIRGINIA: Chatham Hall girls' school receives $31 million endowment gift

October 14, 2009

Chatham Hall, an internationally renowned girls' boarding school affiliated with the Episcopal Church, has received a $31 million gift from the estate of alumna Elizabeth Beckwith Nilsen, Class of 1931. This is the largest single gift to any girls' independent school.

According to Gary Fountain, rector and head of Chatham Hall, "Mrs Nilsen's gift is transformational for the school. What remarkable generosity, and what a powerful statement about women supporting girls' education. Mrs Nilsen's generosity is a head of school's dream."

Nilsen directed that her gift be placed into an unrestricted endowment fund. Her gift came to Chatham Hall following the death of Nilsen's husband, Robert A. Nilsen, in March 2009. Nilsen, who predeceased her husband, died in October 2006.

"My fellow board members and I are humbled by Mrs Nilsen's generosity. Given these challenging economic times, when all schools are guarding their bottom line and cautiously planning for the future, this gift comes to Chatham Hall, as it would to any school, as a miracle, and also as an affirmation of the work we do every day educating girls," said Dora Thomas, chair of the Chatham Hall board of trustees. "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."

Nilsen's gift comes in the final year of Chatham Hall's current Capital Campaign, during which its alumnae and supporters have already surpassed a goal of $25 million with pledges and contributions of $26.3 million. Nilsen's gift builds the success of this campaign to more than $57 million, with several months remaining in the drive. Her gift will increase the school's general endowment to $51 million.

"Elizabeth Nilsen was an unpretentious, private person who wanted no attention focused on herself or her family through this gift," said Fountain, who is in his seventh year as head of the school. "I knew her, as did my immediate predecessors, only through correspondence and telephone conversations, since illness made it difficult for her to have visitors in the later years of her life. Mrs Nilsen made it clear to me that Chatham Hall, in her words, 'was the best thing that ever happened to me.' The school community deeply influenced her and convinced her of the lasting importance of all-girls' schools."

Chatham Hall is an independent college-preparatory high school for girls, located in southern Virginia and affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Its alumnae -- among them the artist Georgia O'Keeffe, Class of 1905 -- are at the forefront in business, media, education, the arts, and philanthropy. The school is known for its strong academic program, Honor Code, leadership initiatives, and social service programs. One in four Chatham Hall girls participates in service in the townships of South Africa. Major female world leaders -- including Benazir Bhutto, Jane Goodall, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- visit campus every year. The school's diverse and international student population is supported by an extensive financial aid program.