Marguerite Wellborn and her husband sit on the porch of their cabin in Bradford, VT. Photo courtesy of Sally Wellborn.

Marguerite Wellborn and her husband sit on the porch of their cabin in Bradford, VT. Photo courtesy of Sally Wellborn.

A simple bequest, an enduring impact

Marguerite Wellborn's ecology fund shapes environmental education in the Upper Valley

Written by Jim Collins

This story is not specific to the environment. The story is about how an organization takes a donor’s wishes — just four or five lines at the end of a will — and turns them into a long-term legacy with enormous impact on the lives of many.

Those four or five lines, those 70 last words, called for the creation of an ecology fund “to be used for public awareness of environmental and ecological issues in the Upper Valley.” Marguerite Wellborn attached nearly $10 million to the opportunity to interpret them.

She had grown up on a farm in New York State. With no neighbors or playmates nearby, the outdoors became her companion. She grew to love the woods. She became, by avocation, a naturalist; she read voraciously about ecology, kept nature journals and wrote scientific prose and lyrical poetry. She explored the natural world on weekly excursions with a group of like-minded friends who called themselves “The Thursday Ladies.” She felt most at home walking the land near her rustic camp on Lake Sacandaga in the Adirondacks. She lived much of her adult life around Schenectady, New York, an area polluted, in part, by the industry and company that created her family wealth, General Electric. When she moved to the Upper Valley — widowed, to Kendal at Hanover — she said to her daughter, Sally, “You have such good air here.” On a visit to Sally’s farm in Cornish, she said, “I can’t believe what’s happening to the world.”

Whether it was her awareness that much of the Upper Valley landscape remained preciously unspoiled, or the fact that two children and three grandchildren now called the Upper Valley home, or that she had an intensely local, present, grounded sense of place, Marguerite Wellborn directed that her entire bequest serve the community where she spent the final six years of her life.

The Charitable Foundation spent more than a year talking with experts from across the country and gathering best practices before coming up with a broad, multi-faceted long-range plan to put Wellborn’s simple wishes into living practice. Since its inception, the Wellborn Ecology Fund has distributed more than $5.5 million in grants. Among other things, it has brought natural-history curricula to area schools, funded natural-resource mapping and inventories, made possible a syndicated outdoors column seen by some 110,000 newspaper readers each week, and convened an annual conference of environmental educators.

With the amount of resources dedicated to this small a geographic area, the Foundation has have created something that has no parallel in the country. With its multi-generational approach and focus on education, its impact will ripple out for generations.

“I think,” says Sally Wellborn, “that my mother would be very happy with the way it’s being done.”