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The legacy of a special conservationist

Interview about Sally Reahard with Gene Wilkins and Ralph “Bo” and Stanley Reahard

By George McDaniel

Sally Reahard and George McDaniel. Images provided.


When one looks at Drayton Hall, what does one see of Sally Reahard? The contributions are numerous, the first being Drayton Hall itself, as she made the lead private gift. During her lifetime, she donated approximately $50,000 a year in budget support. She paid for city water from North Charleston to be piped under the Ashley River to Drayton Hall to provide water for drinking and fire safety. Additionally, her donations funded the terne roof on the main house that withstood Hurricane Hugo, the cottage for residents to provide on-site security, preservation of the paint and plaster throughout the main house, archaeological research, the improved entrance lane, the administrative building, rock revetments to halt riverbank erosion, a purchase of land across the river to secure Drayton Hall’s viewshed, an endowment for general operations and hiring of professional staff, and the new visitors’ center.

Sally Reahard loved Charleston and visited Drayton Hall soon after college. Miss Sally, as she was affectionately known, made the first donation for its purchase by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which was looking for a city in which to locate its Southern Regional Office. She bought the historic Aiken House in downtown Charleston and offered it free to the National Trust.

When I became Drayton Hall’s director, I introduced myself to Miss Sally. Shortly afterward, she mentioned to me that she was selling tulips to raise money for her college. That struck a bell because my mother had done the same at Sweet Briar. It turned out Sally had attended Sweet Briar, remembered Mother and sent me copies from her annual of pictures of Mother.

Miss Sally in Lake Michigan.

Upon Sally’s death in 2003, she left an estate of approximately $180 million, which she gave to nonprofits, among them the Historic Charleston Foundation, The Charleston Museum, the Preservation Society of Charleston, the Lowcountry Land Trust, and the Nature Conservancy. The second-largest bequest, $16 million, went to Drayton Hall as an endowment, $3 million of which could be devoted to its new visitors’ center, now named after her.

A perceptive judge of character, Miss Sally did not like sycophants. From experience I learned how she, even though in Indianapolis, managed to keep a sharp eye on what was going on at Drayton Hall. I respected that, as did Gene Wilkins, a highly regarded attorney in Indianapolis and Sally Reahard’s adviser for many years and executor of her estate. In this interview he offers a very human portrayal of a lady some might have seen as an “eccentric” or a “moneybags.” She was much more.

George McDaniel: Why do you love talking about Miss Sally?

Gene Wilkins: Because she was the most unique individual I’ve ever met.

George: How did you meet?

Gene: I was the senior partner at Ice Miller, which had more than 400 lawyers, and the head of our estate planning section said I should meet Miss Sally Reahard. I lived nearby and made an appointment to visit her at home. On came the largest snowstorm Indianapolis had ever had. That didn’t stop me. Sally was not used to having people walk in the snow to visit her. We immediately hit it off. Our values were the same, and we knew a lot of the same people. We arranged a date for the following Wednesday at 1:30 pm. Since she rarely left her house, she began to rely on me as her eyes and ears in Indianapolis. For 15 years, I spent three hours every Wednesday afternoon with her.

George: What was Miss Sally’s background? How was that expressed in her house and lifestyle?

Gene: She came from a fairly aristocratic background. Sally liked things to be rich but not gaudy. In Ohio, the Aul family was very prominent and had a lot of money. When Sally’s mother was pregnant with her, she went to stay with the Aul family in Ohio so that Sally would be born a Buckeye. Sally’s mother didn’t want to have a Hoosier. After six months, they returned and Sally’s father built a house on fashionable Meridian Street, not a mansion, but a pleasant house. In the early 60s, Sally built a house nearby and was her own architect. It’s a one-story, brick Williamsburg Colonial — functional, with a lot of space. Because she loved plants and flowers, particularly daffodils, she had a beautiful garden and selected a leading landscape architect. She preferred single flowers. When she sat at her desk, next to her would be one flower, perhaps a tulip, rose or daffodil. Sally received lots of flower arrangements, but every night she’d put them in a closet with no heat, and in the morning, she’d take out one flower. The bouquets lasted for weeks. Making the arrangements last for a long time is typical of her, but she’d rather have had one flower to begin with.

Although we lived nearby on Meridian for 43 years, Sally only visited my wife, Patty, and me twice. She came to see our flowering horse chestnut trees and hollyhocks. We had a beautiful English country garden. Patty had served as president of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s horticultural society and traveled the world to see gardens. Sally came for 15 minutes but wouldn’t come in for a cup of tea. She walked around our yard, saw the plants and that was it.

George: Since she gave away so much money, why did she not wish for places to be named after her?

Gene: The biggest part of that answer is that Sally was very close to the brothers Eli and J. K. Lilly, with whom her father had worked since 1905. He rose to become the company’s vice president. The Lilly brothers had a fairly strong rule about not making gifts with their name on them. For example, Mr. Eli made 16 huge gifts, none of which were “naming opportunities.” To Sally, the Lilly brothers provided a model for carefully planning charitable donations and for not doing philanthropy for self-promotion.

George: What were Sally Reahard’s values?

Gene: I’d say absolute honesty was her biggest value. She did not tolerate fools and phonies. She was not glamorous, nor did she seek to be. For example, you would think that a lady with absolutely unlimited funds would have jewelry. I bought her two little pieces of costume jewelry in Venice for eight or ten dollars apiece, which she loved. One was a pseudo diamond of about 25 carats. She got a lot of pleasure out of putting it on.

George: What is a story that illustrates Miss Sally’s lifestyle during the time you knew her?

Gene: A favorite, which she told me, is, when she was elderly, she drove to the pharmacy and asked her houseman, Ralph, to ride in passenger seat and tell her when the traffic lights turned green. She looked across the street to the Shell station and asked, “Ralph, do we need gas?” He got the book out of the glove compartment and said, “Miss Sally, no. We don’t need gas.” She said, “I got cross with Ralph” and said, “Ralph, I don’t remember having gotten gas. When did we get gas?” Ralph says, “A year ago July.” “How far have we been?” she asked. He said, “Thirty-seven miles.”

George: Why do you think she loved Charleston?

Gene: Charleston was the epitome of the Old South. Sally had lived a couple of years in Virginia at Sweet Briar College, a private girl’s college, where she met Charlotte Kent, who married into the Pinckney family of Charleston. Jane Pinckney Hanahan was chairwoman of your board. Charlotte invited Sally and her mother to go to Charleston in about 1928, and they loved everything about it.

Throughout her life she continued to be interested in Charleston, taking its newspaper and having a Charleston phone directory. But she never went back. She had gone up the Ashley River and seen Drayton Hall. She liked the house, which was pretty decrepit at that time. She loved the Ashley River too, especially standing at what at one time was Drayton Hall’s dock and looking across at the wetlands. When you became director, she saved a lot of those wetlands from development.

George: Why do you think she loved Drayton Hall?

Gene: Sally liked Palladian architecture, and Drayton Hall was, in her mind, the best example in the United States of Palladian architecture. Sally loved the fact that Drayton Hall had not been changed and had no heating, air-conditioning, electricity or water. Even Charlotta Drayton used an outhouse for years. That was exactly the sort of building Sally loved.

The house was built by slaves, who carved the banisters. Wonderful plasterers made its beautiful ceilings. Sally felt very much that one of the important things that she could do in her life was to preserve this kind of architecture and this particular house.

George: Could you tell us why she left such a wonderful bequest to Drayton Hall?

Gene: Sally felt that Drayton Hall wasn’t merely important; it was vital because there is no other building like that. She was impressed that architects from all around the world came to see it. She felt Drayton Hall was the most important monument she could leave a gift to. Drayton Hall made Sally happy.

George: What would you like to be your takeaway message about Miss Sally, one that illustrates what people ought to know about her?

Gene: Miss Sally’s heart was in the right place. She was not selfish in any way. I gave Drayton Hall the rock I gave Sally on which is carved the word “Care.” It stood outside her back door. That rock is meaningful because “care” is a word important to me and that I want my grandchildren to know. The difference between a great lawyer and a good lawyer is care. And the difference between a great philanthropist and a giver is care. Sally cared.

Interview with Ralph “Bo” Reahard and Stanley Reahard

Bo and Stanley Reahard.


Ralph “Bo” M. Reahard III is a nephew of Drayton Hall benefactress Sally Reahard and son of her brother Ralph. He grew up knowing “Miss Sally,” as everyone called her, as a beloved aunt. His wife, Stanley Smith Reahard, was born and reared in Summerville, S.C., and described “Aunt Sally” perhaps more as an “outside observer” might. Together their recollections shed light on Sally Reahard’s values, lifestyle and the influences upon her philanthropy.

George: What do you remember about Sally Reahard as a person?

Bo (Ralph): My earliest memory of her is when my parents and us four children would visit my granddad and her — they lived together — almost every Sunday after church and at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Aunt Sally was always excited and had cookies and milk for us. She never forgot our birthdays. For years and years, I got pajamas, a bathrobe or a tie. When we went off to camp, she wrote us letters. She never forgot.

George: How did you come to know Miss Sally?

Stanley: More than 40 years ago, I married into the Reahard family. The first time I met Aunt Sally was when Bo and I were dating or engaged. We immediately bonded because of my being from Charleston. She loved Charleston, and we would chat about it. Anytime I saw her, she had gathered the latest gossip or maybe newspaper articles about Charleston. If the children were with me, she had tea and cookies and little things she thought would interest them.

Her living room was formal, and she was too. She always wore a dress and little spectator pumps, had her hair done the same way and was very polite but engaging and fun.

We have boxes of her slides, which are mostly of things, not of people, which may say something. She liked photography and painting. When she was younger, she was pretty, full of punch and kind of jaunty.

George: What was Sally Reahard especially interested in?

Bo: Mostly environmental conservation and historic preservation. Although she obviously had an interest in the Charleston area, she was active around Indiana and in Leland, Michigan, since our family had been going up there since the mid-1930s. She supported the environmental conservancy and other projects there. It was something Aunt Sally picked up and thoroughly enjoyed.

George: With all her wealth, what was Miss Sally like?

Bo: Widely read, Aunt Sally had a broad range of interests and the money to pursue them. She loved nature and had Audubon portfolios in her house. But for some reason, she tended to be a homebody. When her dad died, she could have been footloose and fancy free, but she did not choose to do that. She never married and lived with her parents. After her mom died, she stayed with her dad until he died in 1971. She didn’t go to a lot of parties. If she got together with close friends, it was to have tea in the afternoons. I don’t remember Sally ever having a drink of alcohol, but we were not there at five o’clock.

George: Sally Reahard came to Charleston a few times and loved it, had wonderful friends, but didn’t return. Do you have any insights as to why?

Stanley: The story Aunt Sally told my mother, who was of the same generation, is that she came to Charleston when she was at Sweet Briar for Christmas parties, and things like that. She had a lot of Charleston friends. One who followed her around was Billy Carter. They spent a good bit of time together, and she was quite smitten. One day when she arrived on the train, Billy met her at the station and told her that he did not want her to hear it from anybody else first: He had asked for Grace Hanahan’s hand in marriage. Aunt Sally was heartbroken, and within 24 hours she got on the train, went back to Indianapolis and never set foot in Charleston again. From what I’ve heard and experienced with Aunt Sally, once she made up her mind about something, there was no changing it.

Billy Carter’s son, Heyward, and his wife, Eleanor, were stationed outside of Indianapolis when they were young. Aunt Sally had kept up with people, including Billy Carter, who told his son, “Be sure and look up Sally Reahard when you’re in Indiana.” Heyward and Eleanor visited and begged her, “Please come back to Charleston. There are people who love you and who would love to see you. You can stay with us. We would love to entertain you.” She never did. I don’t know if the hurt was that deep or whether by that time in her life, she wasn’t traveling.

George: Could you explain her philosophy and methods of philanthropy?

Bo: Aunt Sally preferred privacy. She was low-key in her giving and everything else in the way that she lived, I don’t think many people knew the fortune she had. After she died, a reporter with the Indianapolis Star wrote a story about the “unknown philanthropist” of Indianapolis, outlining all the money she had given away. When my niece saw the story, she called her dad, absolutely shocked.

Aunt Sally researched the organizations she gave money to. If a project interested her, she opened her checkbook and did something significant. If not, she didn’t. For her whole life, Sally had a legal firm in Indianapolis that she worked with, the same one my dad used, and probably my grandfather too, because they tended to stick together. We understand that legal firm had an attorney who had one client, Sally Reahard. Every Wednesday afternoon at two or three o’clock, she would have tea ready, and they would sit in her dining room, go over their papers and decide what they were going to research or support that week.

George: What stories might you tell that paint a picture of Sally Reahard as a real person?

Bo: Aunt Sally had a great appreciation for family. She was very fond of my father and was always very, very good to us. I think her example of philanthropy is something that will be passed on. Although we don’t have the funds she had, giving is something we’ve always encouraged in our children as well.

Another story is that Aunt Sally had decided that making a left-hand turn was too dangerous; it was safer to stay on the right-hand side of the road and only made right-hand turns. You’d never have to cross oncoming traffic. When she went out driving or had someone drive her, she made sure to have right-hand turns to get there. She would figure out a route from home and a route to get back with all right-hand turns. She might go five miles out of her way, but who cares? It was safe.

After my grandmother died, my grandfather and Aunt Sally had a modest, one-story brick house built in the early 1960s a short distance from the larger house where Sally had grown up. After Sally’s death in 2003, [her niece, my sister] Joan helped to manage Sally’s estate and worked with the appraiser, who assessed the value of everything in the house. They came up with a total value of $13,000 for the household goods. She’d given much away, but that shows how frugally she and my grandfather lived. It’s just what they did.

Stanley: Another story is she gave money to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis to build four suites for patients needing longer term care. She thought hospital rooms were dreary and patients needed a sitting room and things like that. Although she’d never have said so, maybe she thought she might be there someday. After she broke her hip when she was in her 90s, she was afraid to go back home and stayed in one [of these suites]. They couldn’t get her out. She pretty well told them, “No, I’m not going!”

I had to laugh the other day because I had not signed up for the luncheon at Drayton Hall since I didn’t know if I was going to be in town. I called that morning and asked, “Do you have a spot available?” A sweet young lady replied, “Yes, we do. We have a spot at somebody or other’s table.” I said, “Good. I’d love to take it.” She said, “How do you spell your last name?” I said, “Kind of like Sally Reahard.” She goes, “Yeah, I thought that was what you said. Okay. I got it.” It’s nice to float along on Aunt Sally’s coattails. We miss her. She had lots of energy. Wonderful coattails!

A resident of Summerville, S.C., George McDaniel was executive director of Drayton Hall from 1989 to 2015 and is now president of McDaniel Consulting, LLC, a strategy firm for communities and historical organizations.


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