Gathering on a scenic campus hillside to mark what would have been her 67th birthday, Mary Baldwin University community members reflected Thursday on the life and impact of longtime administrator Dr. Brenda Bryant. Bryant, who most recently served Mary Baldwin as dean of students and senior vice president for enrollment management and administration, passed away Wednesday, August 15, after a courageous fight with breast cancer.
“She was not only a strategic advisor, but also a trusted friend to me. She brought me — and each of us who knew her — to the place from which our voice, our hope, could spring,” said President Pamela Fox.
Fox described Bryant’s passions beyond her dedicated work at Mary Baldwin — creating tranquil gardens, bird watching, distance running, and aerobics — while birds chirped and summer blooms swayed in the light breeze near Page Garden.
Professor of Philosophy Roderic Owen was one of a handful of faculty and staff members who spoke about Bryant’s quiet, unassuming leadership and far-reaching contributions to the college during her 18-year tenure.
“She initially came to Mary Baldwin to shepherd the newly formed VWIL (Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership) program, but she ended up being an invaluable asset to the college as a whole,” he said.
Owen and several others at the memorial service were members of the search committee that in 1995 selected Bryant as founding director of VWIL, the only all-female corps of cadets in the country. Prior to joining the Mary Baldwin staff, she worked for 15 years as executive vice president of Creative Associates International, Inc. in Washington, DC. She oversaw international leadership and training programs, provided humanitarian assistance to newly democratic countries, and promoted girls’ education. Bryant’s career in leadership development also included teaching graduate courses as an adjunct faculty member at the Washington Public Affairs Center.
Bryant earned a doctorate in public administration from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree in education from Catholic University, and an undergraduate degree in political science from Vassar College.
She immersed herself in VWIL and was not content to stay behind a desk. Some of colleague Sharon Spalding’s fondest memories are from their trips accompanying new cadets during Wilderness — the hiking, camping, and teambuilding adventure that introduces new members to the corps each August.
“A few years into the program, she asked me, with her characteristic sense of humor, ‘Do you think we can do it again? Every time we get a year older, and they stay 18,'” related Spalding, Mary Baldwin director of athletics. Spalding also helped Bryant reach a personal goal of running in her first marathon, which she completed in late adulthood.
With her guidance, VWIL gained national prestige and effectively trained both military and civilian leaders. Bryant quickly earned respect from decorated veterans, including her associate, VWIL Commandant of Cadets Mike Bissell. She was the first woman to be named president of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools in the United States.
Bryant’s rapport with students and former students was exceptional, as evidenced by being ranked by young alumnae as the top “woman who rocked their four years at Mary Baldwin” and earning recognition as an honorary alumna.
Among the dozens of touching comments on Mary Baldwin’s Facebook page is this note from Amy Enz ’05, which echoes a sentiment felt by many former students whose lives were changed by Bryant: “I never would have made it through and become the person I am today without her. She was truly an inspiration and I’ll never forget her.”
Many other alumna reflections came via email, including this from Jennifer Vergne Formugas ’99: “You know how you can look back on your life and know that certain people — only a handful — truly changed it? She was my handful.”
Alumna Barbara Jean Harrington also posted on the VWIL Facebook page that all VWIL graduates and Mary Baldwin alumnae/i deployed in Afghanistan are planning to meet up on the Bagram Air Base on Saturday to have a memorial for Bryant.
Leader by example, intuitive professional, quiet inspiration, Bryant forged a legacy at Mary Baldwin and in the larger community that will endure for many years.
Friends who wish to make a memorial contribution may give to the Brenda Bryant VWIL Scholarship. At this time, checks should be made payable to Mary Baldwin University c/o Office of Institutional Advancement, P.O. Box 1500, Staunton VA, 24402.