I first noticed Mrs. Thompson’s ring when I was about 10 years old. Gay Frith Thompson, W’64, was my mother’s best friend, and she wore her Westhampton College ring with enormous pride.
Her husband was pastor of Colonial Avenue Baptist Church in Roanoke, where my family attended, so I saw that ring almost every Sunday. I had never seen anything like it—a fairytale tower surrounded by a big curvy W.
By the time I applied to college, I knew the W stood for Westhampton, the women’s college at the University of Richmond. I knew that Mrs. Thompson loved Westhampton College, but I was more interested in attending Washington & Lee, which was smaller and closer to home—closer to my comfort zone.
W&L accepted my application but offered little financial aid. In contrast, UR offered a Virginia Baptist Scholarship—a full ride for four years. Mrs. Thompson had encouraged me to apply for the scholarship, and her husband had written a letter of recommendation. My parents were thrilled, and I knew that if I chose another school, they would have to borrow money for tuition. Reluctantly, I enrolled at UR.
I was homesick from day one. I missed my family terribly. Most weekends I went home to Roanoke or to Williamsburg to visit my high school boyfriend, who was a student at William and Mary.
A few weeks into my first semester, I took part in the annual tradition of Proclamation Night. As I wrote a letter to myself—to be opened during my senior year—I thought about Mrs. Thompson’s ring. Although I began to feel connected to a community of special women, I lacked confidence. The University seemed so much bigger than my hometown high school, and I was intimidated by classmates who were more confident, articulate, and outspoken.
I was miserable until halfway through my sophomore year, and then something changed deep inside me. I stopped going home every weekend, and I began to take advantage of the myriad academic and social opportunities on campus. My confidence began to grow.
I found wonderful role models in Dr. Patricia Harwood, Westhampton’s dean at the time, and Dr. Stephanie Micas, who was director of the WILL program (Women Involved in Living and Learning). Those women were feminists who embodied the values of the college and displayed a strong commitment to women’s education. With their encouragement, I became a leader in student government.
My homesickness evaporated, and my confidence soared. At Ring Dance, I felt like a new person as my father escorted me down the grand staircase of The Jefferson Hotel. Mrs. Thompson was there to see me take my place in the giant W on the rotunda floor.
She was there!
But of course she was there—not just for me, but for all that Westhampton College had meant to her over the years.
Another of my mother’s closest friends, Jane Bowles Hurt, W’56, also made the trip to Richmond to be a part of that special tradition. They knew then what I know now—that love and appreciation for Westhampton College grow stronger with time.
I am glad that when the time came for me to leave my comfort zone, I found myself in a supportive learning environment tailored to the needs of young women. I am forever grateful that Westhampton instilled in me a deep appreciation for women’s education and the sacrifices that remarkable women like Dr. May Keller have made over the years. And I am most gratified that the opportunities available to Westhampton students remain as valuable and relevant today as they were during my time on campus.
Mrs. Thompson and I eventually compared our Westhampton rings. A generation had passed since she received her ring, but the design was nearly identical. I don’t wear my ring every day anymore, but when I put it on, I give thanks for May Keller, Pat Harwood, and Stephanie Micas—and for Mrs. Thompson, whose pride in her ring led me to discover Westhampton College for myself.
Ellen Bradley, W’91, is director of communications for the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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