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William & Mary receives $3.1 million gift to support Judaic Studies

William & Mary has received a $3.1 million gift from the estate of alumna Ruth Stern Hilborn ’28, who passed away last year at the age of 105.

The bequest established the Meyers Stern Endowment, the income from which will provide scholarships in Judaic Studies, assist students to further their studies in Israel and pay for guest lecturers, conferences and visiting professors in Judaic Studies.

“This is an important gift for William & Mary,” President Taylor Reveley said. “Ruth’s generosity will help our students grasp the powerful role that Jewish thought, religion and history have played in human history. This understanding, always germane, is especially telling in today’s world.”

The gift shocked and delighted Professor Marc Lee Raphael, the Nathan and Sophia Gumenick Professorship of Judaic Studies and director of the A&S program in Judaic Studies, which offers an undergraduate minor.

“I fell off my chair,” said Raphael, who for nearly 20 years flew to Los Angeles at least once a year to call on Hilborn, a Virginia native but long-time Angeleno with an expressed interest in Jewish history and life. “I had no idea. She’d indicated that she planned to leave something to support Judaic Studies at the College. I thought $10,000, maybe? But certainly nothing on this scale.”

A photo of Ruth Stern Hilborn from the 1928 Colonial Echo yearbook (courtesy of Swem Special Collections Research Center)Over lunch and outings to the J. Paul Getty Museum or Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens, Raphael would update Hilborn on news of her beloved William & Mary and listen as she recounted stories about growing up in Richmond, having fun on the Williamsburg campus and enjoying life in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, where she moved with her mother before marrying.

Widowed twice with no children, Hilborn lived simply in the Gaylord Hotel, a historic Wilshire Boulevard hotel-turned-apartment building situated next door to the legendary Brown Derby restaurant that was noted for the stars who regularly dined at the hat-shaped structure. She was charming even into her 90s, a cane helping her to walk in low heels. She’d graciously offer her guests candied apricots and ginger ale.

Hilborn died in January 2013. Now her legacy at her alma mater — where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in three years — will live on. A final disbursement from Hilborn’s estate was received by the university on Aug. 19.

While details of the initial expenditures from Hilborn’s endowment are being worked out, Raphael said the first annual scholarship to a student studying in Israel may be awarded next fall through William & Mary’s Reves Center for International Studies. He said the gift undoubtedly will have a major impact on the university.

“It will make Judaic Studies more visible at the College and enable us to serve the College better,” Raphael said.

Hilborn was a charter member of the Honorable Robert Boyle Legacy Society, an organization started in 1992 to recognize William & Mary alumni and friends who have made future provisions for the university in their estate plans.

More than 2,000 people are members of the Boyle Society, said Lee G. Walsh, executive director of Gift Planning. “Boyle Society membership continues to grow as more and more alumni and friends notify us of their plans,” he said.

Walsh noted that charitable bequests have been an important source of support for William & Mary through the years.

“They also provide a very meaningful way for donors to provide a lasting legacy and a way to commemorate their special ties to the College,” he said. “Our staff works very closely with donors to provide suggested language for their wills or other testamentary documents. Their bequests can be used to establish permanent endowments in their name, or perhaps to honor or memorialize a family member or favorite professor — someone who has inspired them.”

Various endowments and gifts have supported Judaic Studies at the College for about 30 years. Currently supported are the Nathan and Sophia Gumenick Professorship of Judaic Studies, professional development for Judaic Studies faculty, an undergraduate minor in Judaic Studies, and support for undergraduate travel and research in Judaic Studies. Raphael’s specialty is Jewish history in Virginia and the United States, including philanthropy, culture, politics and religion.

A third-generation Angeleno, Raphael earned a bachelor’s and doctorate from UCLA. After two decades directing Ohio State University’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies, he moved east in 1989 to teach in William & Mary’s Religious Studies Department. The connection that he had to both Los Angeles and to the university became the bond in his relationship with Hilborn.

“I knew the world she lived in,” Raphael said. “Every story she told, I knew the streets, the restaurants. And I knew the College and the history of the College. She could talk about American Jewish history, and I knew that, too.”

Some of the best visits they had were when he and his wife, Linda, strolled Hilborn in a wheelchair through the Japanese gardens at The Huntington in San Marino and sat on a bench at the beach in Santa Monica. “We just sat there and talked,” he recalled. “She said she wanted to see the ocean.”

Cortney Langley contributed to this story.