MIDDLEBURG, Va. -- Officials at a small boarding school in northern Virginia hunt country were stunned to receive the largest-ever gift to a secondary girls' school: a $40 million bequest from a Standard Oil heiress who liked to drive around in an Oldsmobile station wagon.
Ruth Bedford of Westport, Connecticut, died in June at age 99. She volunteered with the Red Cross in England during World War II, worked as a stage manager on Broadway and was known to enjoy a glass of Scotch.
She had informed her alma mater, the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, that she planned to remember it in her will, but school administrators were astonished when they learned she had bequeathed $40 million. The gift doubles the school's endowment.
The staff and student body of 155 learned of the gift Tuesday at a meeting in the library, prompting a sustained "WOOO!" from the girls.
"Her gift is a call to each of us to be our own woman, to follow our own passions and to manage our own money," Head of School Cathy McGehee said, receiving a louder and more sustained "WOOOO!" when she canceled classes Wednesday in honor of the news.
Bedford never married and never had children. Her grand-niece, Libby Tritschler of Southport, Connecticut, said the extended family is supportive of Bedford's decision, even though the gift encompasses the bulk of her estate.
Tritschler said she believes the gift to Foxcroft was an appropriate way for her great aunt to bequeath her money.
"Foxcroft instilled in her a sense of who she was," Tritschler said. "She believed the person she became - and I would describe her as the most incredible person - came from the time she spent at Foxcroft."
Tritschler said many people in Connecticut who knew Bedford were unaware of her wealth because she lived well below her means. "If you knew her, she was very unpretentious," she said.
At Tuesday's ceremony, students saw pictures of Bedford during her time at Foxcroft, from 1928 to 1932, showing her on the basketball team and with friends. Her yearbook entry lists a variety of activities, including theater and equestrian.
Megan Murphy, executive director for the National Coalition of Girls' Schools in Charlottesville, estimated there are fewer than 20 schools nationally like Foxcroft - private boarding schools without a religious affiliation for high-school girls.
Foxcroft, founded 100 years ago, sits on a 500-acre campus with century-old cherry trees lining the main road on campus and has a renowned equestrian program. The school's list of alumnae includes names like Mellon, Roosevelt and DuPont. Other famous alums include former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, actress Stephanie Zimbalist and the late Millicent Fenwick, a congresswoman who served as the basis for the character Lacey Davenport in "Doonesbury."
The school intends to put the bulk of the money in its endowment, but also plans to support the school's performing arts to honor Bedford's love of Broadway and to start a scholarship in Bedford's name. About 30 percent of students receive financial aid to help cover expenses, which exceeds $50,000 annually, and school officials say they want to increase their commitment to financial aid.