On Monday, February 5, 2018, the Winsor community lost one of its legendary leaders with the passing of Virginia Wing at age 94. While those who knew her best will have more to share, the following tribute offers a brief glimpse of what she meant to the school. The Boston Globe shared its own glimpse of her remarkable life in a Feb. 18 obituary. Plans are underway for a celebration of her life, to be held at Winsor on Sunday, March 11, at 1 p.m. Please watch for details. Information about memorial gifts is included below, in accordance with her wishes.
Virginia Wing will forever be a part of the Winsor School, as it was a part of her life for more than 65 years. One of the most iconic figures in Winsor's long history, she served the prominent Boston girls' school for 36 years before retiring as director in 1988. In more than three decades since, she was an ongoing presence, gracing the school at official ceremonies and at annual lectures in her honor and, with her extraordinary memory, keeping alive the school's storied past.
Miss Wing was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1923, but spent much of her childhood in Denver, Colorado, where she graduated from the Kent School for Girls in 1941. She earned her A.B. degree from Smith College in 1945 with a major in philosophy and a minor in English. At Smith, already a clear leader, she was the president of both the Student Government and of the Athletic Association.
Prior to coming to Winsor in 1952, she began a life's work in education with early roles at both of her alma maters. From 1945 to 1949, she taught English and served as a librarian at Kent, a predecessor school of today's Kent Denver. The year before she left Kent, the senior class dedicated its yearbook to their beloved young teacher for her "justice, honesty, wisdom, and understanding," presciently recognizing early on qualities that would distinguish her.
She returned to Smith in 1949, serving as associate director of admission. In that role, she gained a broad and firsthand knowledge of the state of secondary education, visiting more than 130 public and private schools nationwide in her travels on behalf of Smith.
In 1952, feeling the tug of the classroom, she left Smith to join the Winsor faculty as associate director and college advisor, beginning a 36-year tenure. At the start, she also taught sophomore and junior English, including expository writing, and served as sophomore homeroom teacher. Valeria Knapp, then director, introduced her to Winsor's leadership body with a glowing report, "She is a prize...and we are indeed fortunate to have won her."
In 1963, she succeeded Miss Knapp as Winsor's director, becoming only the fifth leader of the school in its 75-plus years. Reflecting on her successor, Miss Knapp noted, "Her instinctive understanding, original ideas, and sound judgment have played an important part in the development of the Winsor School during these years. A promising future lies ahead under her imaginative and constructive guidance."
Virginia Wing's steady good sense guided Winsor through the often turbulent 1960s and 1970s. She provided wise leadership during several key moments, including the board's deliberations of whether to merge with a coed suburban school or remain true to Winsor's original mission as a girls' school in the city of Boston. At every turn, Miss Wing helped the Winsor community to clarify and hold true to the core principles that continue to guide the school today.
Miss Wing exemplified a quality shared by each of the eight women who have led Winsor: the ability to clarify the school's needs in such a way that innovations could happen without departing from values that had made the school so strong. She endorsed greater choice for students through senior projects and Jan Term, encouraged the building of the science wing, and urged faculty input in curriculum change.
Looking back on the many changes at Winsor during her 25 years as director, she noted the increasing diversity of the student body as the most significant shift. During her tenure, she reminded all constituencies of the fact that Winsor would not discriminate in its entrance policies and would need to increase scholarship funds in order to do so.
What didn't change? High academic standards, an abiding value for integrity and hard work, and, in her words, "a vigorous, broad curriculum," to name a few. Preparing for Winsor's Centennial in 1986, she said, "One of the strengths of this school is that while there have been vital changes over the years, we have not lost sight of Miss Winsor's original goal."
While sweeping social changes challenged schools, Winsor included, Miss Wing held to a belief that "the children always come first," longtime colleague and friend Patricia Hager reflected in a special tribute. The abiding lesson for her: "When things get complicated, try to figure out what is right for the kids." Everything for Ginny, as her friends called her, flowed from that first precept. As much as she cared about her students, she urged them to "care about each other." In her addresses, she wove in stories of lifelong friendships among alumnae and prioritized "a sense of community." Her message was simple and direct. "Translated, that means: think about other people, your friends, your teachers."
Having worked in admission and college advising, she reminded Winsor students often, such as an opening day address in 1986, how "being a constructive, caring person" should take precedence over the pursuit of grades and getting into a particular college. She assured the student body that colleges would not be impressed by candidates "who have lost sight of the fun that a student can have in exploring ideas and asking provocative questions."
Virginia Wing also cared deeply about the faculty. Trustee chair Robert Brace once described her as "that unique school head who is first and always a teacher." She had a gift for identifying wonderful teachers and fought for salary increases and benefits for them. "We must speak out about the worth of excellent teaching and of a school which cares about the growth of each individual," she told the school's Trustees in 1974. Today, the school's annual outstanding teacher award honors her memory. Every summer, the program of Virginia Wing Faculty Enrichment Grants, established in her honor, continues to support professional development of Winsor teachers.
Beyond Winsor, she exerted a broad influence through her service and leadership to several educational organizations. She served as president of both the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls and the Head Mistresses Association of the East and was vice president of the Independent School Association of Massachusetts. She also served on the Commission on Independent Schools as well as the School/College Relations Committee of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accrediting body. Always devoted to her college, she served for a decade on the Smith Board of Counselors and chaired its Campus School Committee. In 1989, the college honored her with the Smith College Medal, "given annually to those alumnae who, in the judgment of the trustees, exemplify in their lives and work the true purpose of a liberal arts education."
Asked to speak at her retirement celebration, the Rev. F. Washington Jarvis, head of Roxbury Latin School during Miss Wing's Winsor tenure, reflected on "the end of an era" not only for Winsor but also for independent schools nationally. "She has been—for me and many others in the profession—the archetypal school head, the ideal to which we have aspired," he said.
Long into retirement, Miss Wing continued to serve as trustee of many Boston area schools, including the Chestnut Hill School, Derby Academy, Epiphany Preparatory School, the Groton School, Roxbury Latin School, and Tenacre School.
With her unwavering integrity, impeccable manners, and aura of strength and directness, Miss Wing could be intimidating to students and parents alike. Yet she always had a "gift of laughter," and faculty colleagues and board members came to know her never-failing wit. Devoted to animals from her earliest years, she could have people in stitches recounting the adventures of her cats; a lucky visitor might find her Maine coon cat peeking out from under her desk (Loki, named for the god of mischief). When she spoke in assemblies, she had a penchant for illustrating points with lessons from Winnie the Pooh or Stuart Little that would leave girls smiling and thinking. Returning to speak at an alumnae gathering in 2015, she reminisced about the great fun of surprising students through the years with hilarious faculty skits during assemblies.
In her opening message of 1986, the fall after Winsor's centennial, she shared with students the words of a prayer she'd come across that summer in the papers of her late father, a Unitarian minister. It read in part: "we belong to the builders of the future.... May we be faithful to our day and to future generations. May our influence be an inspiration for good, and the memory of our actions be a blessing to those who follow us in this place."
She asked the girls to take that charge seriously—and to remember "you are truly the builders of Winsor's future." Miss Wing humbly and steadfastly worked at building and sustaining an institution that would prepare young women for that charge. Years later, what many alumnae have come to appreciate most was Miss Wing's clear sense of them as individuals, each with her own unique potential to make to a difference. She looked to a future with "immense opportunities open to women" and breathtaking challenges. In a career that spanned more than four decades, as Ms. Hager put it, "She never outgrew her sense of optimism."
NOTE ON GIFTS IN HER MEMORY: If friends wish, they may make memorial gifts to Smith College Scholarship Fund, Northampton, MA 01063 or to The Winsor School, Attn: Virginia Wing Memorial Scholarship Fund, Pilgrim Road, Boston, MA 02215. To make an online gift to that fund, click here.