By Daniel Warner, Berry College
It has always been interesting to me how the identities of the quiet lives of scholarship recipients are represented to donors. Having been a scholarship recipient, like most Berry students, I have had to go through the process of taking pictures and giving biographic information for the Alumni Center so that donors can put a face and a story to the person whose education their money is funding. Most of the time, this information has a positive, success-oriented slant. In this particular letter from Russell Sargent to Martha Berry, it is a little different. I feel that it makes an especially interesting type of personal appeal through biographical account.
Martha Berry sent many letters in her days at the Berry Schools seeking to solicit funding for particular students’ continued educations. She sent out these letters so prolifically that much of my reading in the MBDA has been of her donation solicitations. But in this letter, we see a bit of a different scenario from the typical perspective of Miss Berry writing to a potential benefactor, and instead the letter is addressed to Miss Berry with the intent of convincing her to take on a new student. This is significant because, instead of raising money for the schools, taking on a new student would naturally cost the school money. And with Miss Berry’s characteristic prudence, this would not appear an easy task. However, the presence alone of letters such as this shows another characteristic of Miss Berry, equal in vigor, which drove the Berry Schools toward their success: passion for opening up opportunities for people of otherwise limited means.
Sargent, in the letter, begins by talking fondly of the Berry Schools, and how he hopes to one day be able to contribute financially to the schools. He speaks of how he has seen the Schools grow and expand their influence, and how it delights him that they are touching more and more lives. He then goes on to talk of a little girl in the mountains of Georgia who wants to get to know the Schools named Virginia Gowen. The story he tells is that a certain Miss Allen found this girl at a Fresh Air Camp in the mountains, adopted her, and wants to give her an education specifically at the Berry School for girls.
He tells that she is a small child in the fourth grade who is bright, eager to learn, and very sweet. The only problem he can foresee that would prevent someone from immediately falling for Virginia is that she is rather small and cannot yet obtain her health certificate. But, he explains, this is because she has only recently started getting over the flu, which might be a contributing factor to her diminutive size. He ends the letter thanking Miss Berry for everything she has offered to him, and requests that she let him know of anything he can do to ensure Virginia’s enrollment in the Berry School for girls.
We think so frequently of Berry as a college, but there is such a rich history of teaching and learning at Berry for younger ages as well. Sargent’s earnest desire to enroll Virginia, this girl who he had only known for a few weeks, shows his view of the importance of education early on. We can also draw from the appeal he gives to Miss Berry that he feels she will hold the same view, which surely has been substantiated over Berry’s history, and with the current existence of the Child Development Center and Berry elementary and middle schools. It is a very personal, emotion-based appeal that he gives to Miss Berry, a targeted entreaty to the generous and empathetic side of her that I feel we sometimes lose track of in considering her meticulously cultivated image of stalwart strength.