Opening mail has never been one of Dana Van Slyke's favorite chores — that all changed last Tuesday. While hurriedly sorting through her daily pile of letters and junk mail, Van Slyke, the Herndon High School choir director, noticed a hand-printed, oversized white envelope from an attorney's office in West Virginia. Van Slyke's curiosity was peaked.
"It struck me as strange because it was from an attorney," Van Slyke said, laughing. "My first thought was, 'uh oh, what have I done?"
She opened the envelope and out fell a copy of a will and a $100,000 check for the Herndon High School music program. "This must be a joke," she remembered thinking to herself.
It was no joke. Last Tuesday, the Herndon music department found itself $100,000 richer after an unexpected check from the estate of Mildred McClung Evans arrived, without any notice. It was the single largest private donation to the school, according to Principal Jan Leslie.
"I guess the lesson here is not to throw something away when you think it might be junk. You never know," Leslie said. "I was amazed because you would think you would get a phone call from the lawyer's office or at the very least they might send it registered mail, but nope."
EVANS, WHO DIED in her home state of West Virginia on Sept. 12, 1999, was a former Herndon High librarian and wife of the late Douglas Evans, a former principal at Herndon for 20 years, from 1945 to 1965. "We've heard that they came to every activity at the high school and in particular, really enjoyed the music department," Van Slyke said. "Mr. Evans was very instrumental in establishing this school's band program."
Band Director Richard Bergman has been at Herndon High for 25 years and while he has never seen a donation like this before, he said he is not surprised that it happened. "In my time here, I've seen this community and this county and this school undergo tremendous changes, but the one unique thing about Herndon was the community involvement and support of its school and that is certainly reflected in the music department," he said. "There are not many places where the band goes out every year and plays a Christmas concert in the town square on a cold Sunday night, or the choir does community events willingly to support our town. Although I have seen this town grow immensely, I don't think we have lost that community spirit or its attachment to its schools. That is very unusual for a big county like Fairfax."
While Leslie never met her predecessor, Evans, she is grateful for his and his wife's generosity. "It says a lot about this man as a principal that they had that kind of money to give back," she said. "Mr. Evans spent 20 years of his life at this school and Mrs. Evans spent 10 years here, so obviously this was something they cared very much about."
Linda Waddell, the principal's administrative assistant and Herndon High alumnus, was a student when Evans was principal. In addition, while she said she did not spend a lot of time in the principal's office back then, she remembered Evans, who died in 1977, as being a "very quiet, kind and gentle man."
A 1965 Herndon High yearbook page dedicated to Mr. Evans complimented his nearly 20 years of service to the school. "[His] guiding hand is competent to meet any situation which may confront the school," it read, "and the school, under his administration, will continue to prosper mightily."
VAN SLYKE SAID it is not unusual to receive monetary donations in the mail, but the choir director said she was stunned at the sight of such a large check. In her eight years at Herndon, Van Slyke said her single biggest donation was about $3,500. "This never happens. I saw a one with a couple of zeroes and I thought, 'oh, it's $1,000 check,'" she said. "
And every once in awhile we get donations like that which is really nice and then I looked at the check again and I thought, 'there must be something wrong here.'"
She scanned the will again and took it into the principal's office down the hall. Leslie had a similarly stunned reaction. "My first thought was that I was thankful, but then my second thought was, 'oh, no, what if this is a hoax?"
A quick call to the law office of George Lemon in Lewisburg, W.Va. quickly put any such notion to rest. In fact, Evans had donated equal amounts to Carnegie Hall in New York and a local Lewisburg Presbyterian church. "She was generous to a fault," said Sandra Scott, of Lewisburg, one of Evans' nieces. "She left all of her nieces a nice sum in the will."
Scott said she was not surprised to hear of her late aunt's generosity. One of five children, born and raised on a farm in Edinburgh, W. Va. Mildred moved to Fairfax County when her husband was hired to take the reins at Herndon High in 1945. After working part-time at Herndon and Centreville elementary schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Evans became the full-time Herndon High librarian in 1960 and worked there until 1969. "She loved that school, her husband loved that school and she was a big music fan," Scott said. "Even when she came back to West Virginia, she never forgot her experience there. They had no children, their school was their family."
WITH THE CHECK IN THE BANK, Herndon High School now must determine what it is going to do with the surprise donation. "My idea is a lasting kind of thing not something that will be here today and gone tomorrow and you'd never know that the money came," Leslie said. "Whatever we do, I want it to be real and significant so that years from now, you could walk in and still see it."
Despite budget cuts and obvious immediate needs, Bergman and Van Slyke agree that the money should go to "a large capital expense."
It took 15 years for the band to raise enough money for the new uniforms it purchased last year, Bergman said. He added that he has not received new instruments from the county in at least five years. "We don't know, yet, what we are going to do, but we have agreed that it needs to be something permanent and substantial for students in the building," the choir director said.
Mary Beth Strachan, the president of the HHS Band Parents Association, said she is thrilled about the donation, but admitted that she didn't have any specific suggestions on where it should be spent. The band is always in need of new uniforms and instruments, she said, adding that she hoped whatever was decided would benefit current and future students in all three programs. "It's great because it comes at a time when everyone is concerned about budget cuts and a shortage of funds," Strachan said. "It's such a delight to find someone who cared that much about Herndon High School and music."
The reality of the $100,000 has not fully dawned on Bergman. "The first thing we are going through is the pipe dream moment. We are still enjoying that," he said.
Bergman said that his students, upon hearing the news, were full of ideas about how to spend the money. The students were very creative in their requests with new couches and recliners topping their wish list. "Kids don't really realize what they are going to get out of this, because honestly, we don't know what we are ultimately going to get out of this," Bergman said. "I think they will be really excited when they finally hear what it is."
Van Slyke said, while each department — choir, band and orchestra — have immediate needs, each department head agreed that the project must reach all segments of the music department. "Sure, we all think about our individual programs, but we agree that the money is for the entire music program, and music students as a whole. You see the money and you think, 'wow, I could get new chairs for this room or new band uniforms. We could get new risers or buy a grand piano,' but that's not the kind of money it is. So it would be really nice to come up with something that would be helpful departmentally."
Van Slyke and Bergman will sit down on Wednesday with the principal, assistant principal and other faculty members to determine exactly what should be done with the money. Van Slyke said Leslie told her that they should "do something that we never ever would have been able to do" without the donation. However, will the music teachers have the final say? "Absolutely," said Van Slyke.
Bergman concurred: "It will be a fine arts department decision and I'm sure [Principal Leslie] will stir us into making consensus."
For her part, Leslie said the decision process would be a collective venture. "We have to sit down and talk about it and investigate what we can do with it in terms of making the best kind of investment for the future and the program," she said.
VAN SLYKE AND BERGMAN said they would like to see a plan in place sometime this year. "If we want to get something really significant, we know it takes a long time to get things approved,"
Van Slyke said, noting that whatever is decided upon, it will bear the Evans' name. "We would like to start immediately so that it can get approved and we can see results."
Despite the unexpected windfall, both teachers stressed that the Herndon High music budget needed the support of the community. "We will still need support from the PTA and the parent booster organizations for our day-to-day operating expenses," Van Slyke said. "But we know we will be getting the questions, 'well, why are we still selling cheesecakes."
Bergman, the longtime Hornet band leader, worries that the donation may curtail parts of the band, and music department's, fundraising. "It's important for the community to understand that this does not mean the music department will not have to fund raise anymore," he said. "If there is a downside to this, it would be if the community looked at the music department at Herndon High School as being so rich that they don't need to donate, or we don't need their support."
Bergman stressed that the $100,000 will go to a "capital range project" that will continue to help the entire program for decades to come. "Our day-to-day and year-to-year needs will still need to be met to make our programs effective."