Helen Austern Colson ’53, P ’82, ’84, ’87’s service to Sidwell Friends School has been extraordinary by any measure. This year marks the 80th that she has been a member of the school community, and the depth and breadth of the roles she has played are unparalleled: student, alumna, volunteer, trustee, parent, senior administrator, campaign consultant, and even acting head of school.
Born months before Thomas Sidwell’s passing, Helen Austern arrived at Sidwell Friends as a fourth grader in 1944. Her Middle School classes were held in what we now call Zartman House, and her high school years were spent in a wooden building where Thomas and Frances Sidwell once lived. Helen’s many talents were already apparent by Upper School, as her classmates observed in the 1953 yearbook: “Helen has become a leader in whatever she has set out to do… With all her obligations and responsibilities, she is never too busy to listen to the problems of others, and to offer sound practical advice. She is one of the few people honestly more interested in others than herself.”
Head of School Bryan Garman notes that Helen carried this attitude with her into adulthood. “No one cares more deeply about Sidwell Friends than Helen Colson,” he said. “She is an extraordinary individual who has always been willing to help, no matter how small the matter. I am grateful for the advice, friendship, and support she has provided over the years. She approaches any challenge with kindness and brings clarity to the most difficult situations. She is a legend in the independent school community, one of the most respected people in the field. What a privilege it is to call her a friend!”
The Sidwell Friends of Helen’s youth was a segregated one. While the School community was largely in support of admitting Black students by the early 1950s, trustees were unable to reach consensus on the matter. As editor of the Quarterly during her senior year, Helen found herself at the front lines of this historic conflict: a student had submitted a poem criticizing the School for its hypocrisy in claiming to abide by Quaker values yet refusing to admit Black students. The head of school called Helen into his office, telling her the poem must not be published. Her favorite English teacher, the legendary Jef Forsythe, talked the Quarterly staff down from a walk-out. “I want you to graduate and go on to do good in the world,” he advised them. She set out to do just that.
After earning degrees from Wellesley and Tufts, Helen returned to DC as a newspaper reporter and editor, and also co-founded a journalistic cooperative. She shared her writing talents with the School as an alumni volunteer and then a parent newsletter editor beginning in 1970 when her daughter, Amy ’84, enrolled, followed by her daughter, Deborah ’87, in 1973 and her son, Adam ’82, in 1978. She served on the Development Committee as the School began to engage in long-range planning in advance of the Centennial in 1983. She was elected to the Board of Trustees in 1977, only to have the newly appointed Head of School Earl Harrison hire her the following year to serve as director of development.
When Helen left that position a dozen years later, Earl Harrison observed: “Helen Colson’s contribution to Sidwell Friends is unprecedented in the history of the School. She inherited a fragmental and unproven development program and converted it through superb leadership into one of the best staffs in independent education.” Indeed, during her transformative tenure, Helen ran an extremely successful Centennial fundraising campaign, leading to the completion of the Kogod Center for the Arts and the Wannan Gymnasium, followed by the Lower School’s SAM building and numerous other campus improvements. While building the development program, she also simultaneously served on the Board of Trustees from 1980-1988.
As a leader in the School’s long-range planning efforts and chief author of its long-range plan, Helen insisted that fundraising for endowment was key to the School’s future and she led the School’s first campaign solely focused on the endowment, Endowing Excellence. Her own experience as a Sidwell Friends student contributed to her deeply held belief that recruiting and retaining excellent faculty was essential to the long-term success of the School, and her efforts led to increased faculty salaries and improved benefits. Helen’s lasting impact can also be seen today in the School’s continuing commitment to student financial aid. With wisdom, grace, and sensitivity, she articulated why prizing diversity is a core value of Sidwell Friends, and helped secure funds to ensure it would continue to be.
When it came time for Earl Harrison to take a half-year sabbatical in 1986, he turned to Helen to serve as Acting Head of School in his absence. She had already earned a promotion to Associate Headmaster for Development and Planning, and retained both positions during this time, a fact that did not go unnoticed in the Board’s Minutes of Appreciation for her service: “The Board of Trustees notes for the record that there was in fact only one Helen Colson during this period, not two, as it sometimes appeared.”
In 1990, the year Helen received the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE)’s Robert Bell Crow Award for service to the national independent school community, she decided to share her expertise in a new way as president of Helen Colson Development Associates, a firm that provided educational consulting services to independent schools around the country for over two decades. She edited NAIS’s Handbook of Philanthropy at Independent Schools, among other foundational publications, and in 1997, she received CASE's Crystal Apple Award for Teaching Excellence. While her formal employment at Sidwell Friends ended when she launched her own firm, she continued to consult and volunteer for many successful campaigns including Faces of Friends and Call Us Friends, the landmark campaign that led to the green renovation of the Middle School building, the construction of the Lower School gymnasium and Groome building addition, and many other campus improvements that transformed the physical plant. As longtime volunteer and friend Ginger Newmyer once wrote, “Because Helen had a rare appreciation of the interaction between plant and program, as well as a deep concern for faculty and students, her remarkable achievements will keep on growing.”
Helen’s many accomplishments have been recognized by her classmates, who gave her the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2003. She has continued to serve the School in a multitude of ways, including as a valued member of the Board’s Development Committee for many years, and most recently as a member of the Together We Shine Campaign Steering Committee. Her willingness to continue decade after decade to counsel new advancement administrators and staff has been a singular gift that only Helen could give. She received the Newmyer Award in 2018 for her continued exemplary service to Sidwell Friends.
Helen Austern Colson ’53 led Sidwell Friends School through some of the most transformative moments in its history, so it is only appropriate that we recognize her today as an honorary leadership member of a campaign that will forever reshape the campus footprint and ensure that the values she has championed during her 80 years with the School will continue on for decades to come.
Helen joins fellow Honorary Leadership Members Arlene and Robert Kogod P ’76, ’79, ’80 and David P. Pearson ’52, Clerk of the Board of Trustees Mark Jacobsen P ’24, ’27, as well as Campaign Co-Clerk's Jason Carroll ’96, Charis Menschel P ’25, ’27, ’29, and David Milner ’86.
To learn more about the Together We Shine campaign and to see who is involved, visit shine.sidwell.edu.