The Power of Legacy Stories: A Daughter’s Love

Why Gather Legacy Stories?

If you’re interested in learning a little about why you should bother, why not read this true story… 

The Phyllis Summerhayes Story

While I believed that gathering and sharing legacy stories was important in honouring donors, it was through my administration of an estate gift to the University of Victoria in 2005, that I truly understood its immense power. 

It all started one morning when I received a call from a local lawyer informing me of an estate gift for the University of Victoria.  At the time, I was the manager of planned giving and estate administration.  After meeting with the lawyer I discovered it was a bequest of approximately $3.5 million from Phyllis Summerhayes, born in California in 1908, to establish an endowed fund in honour of her father, Maurice Summerhayes, to support student awards in the faculty of engineering.  This was the largest gift UVic had ever received for student awards. 

The strange part was that neither Phyllis nor any of her relatives had any prior relationship with the university.  Even her executors knew very little about her – other than knowing she had never married, had no children or any relatives in Canada.  While this was good news for the university, for me, it was still a bit too much of a mystery. 

Well, it took weeks of research, and wouldn’t have been possible without help from the executors, and the other 13 beneficiaries in her will (all distant relatives scattered throughout South Africa, England, and the USA that had each received over a million dollars).  What I found out early on in my research was that Marigold Vodden was the only one of the 13 that had actually met Phyllis.  Marigold was her only niece and lived in Yorkshire in England (and to my delight had just purchased a computer and, was eager to correspondence to practice her email skills).  With everyone’s help, I was able to piece together this story and better understand the compelling reason behind the gift.  Here it is…

Maurice Summerhayes was born in England in 1872, immigrated to California where he became a fruit grower.  While there he met and married Hilda (who had previously emigrated from England with her family).  After approximately ten years in California the bottom dropped out of the fruit growing business so Maurice took his wife and only child, Dorothy, back to London and enrolled in the School of Mining to train as a mining engineer. 

After this they returned to North America, this time to Canada, where Maurice worked as a mining engineer in Timmins, Ontario.  Unfortunately, Hilda did not like the mining town and left Maurice and returned to California.  It was shortly after this that Phyllis was born. 

Phyllis grew up believing she had no father; she never saw him and thought he must be dead.  Phyllis didn’t learn the truth until she was a teenager when he visited California (it was during this trip that the photo of the two of them was taken).  From that day forward, Phyllis never left her father’s side.  She returned to live in Canada with him and when he retired to Vancouver Island, she moved there to look after him. After Maurice died on April 10, 1953 at the age of 81, Phyllis decided to stay and made the Island her home.

I was determined to ensure that her memory and story were not lost (since she had created the award in her father’s name, her name would have simply disappeared in an administrative file).  So I compiled the various photos and snippets of her life from her relatives created the Phyllis Summerhayes story.  This was shared with her relatives who, through this process, appeared to be getting to know one another quite well. Once the estate administration was completed, the university decided to hold a media conference to announce and celebrate the gift. 

What was an incredible and unexpected bonus was that all 13 named beneficiaries informed me they would be travelling from across the globe to Victoria to join in the celebration and meet one another.  And, Marigold Vodden represented the family at the media conference and told everyone this wonderful story. 

It was a lot of work, but my diligence and persistence paid off in more ways than one.  The response to the media release and conference was incredible.  The media coverage was positive, touching and comprehensive: print, television, and radio.

And following the media conference, when I returned to my office, I received a call.  It was from a woman who had just heard my interview on the local CBC news and wanted to establish an award – just as Phyllis had done – to honour her husband who had recently died.

In the days and weeks that followed, I had many enquiries which translated into quite a few new legacy gift confirmations.  While new gifts and positive media coverage proved the point that stories are powerful motivators, it was knowing that we had honoured Phyllis and her memory and in doing so, brought a family together…now that was the real ‘return on the investment’.  

If you are interested in gathering legacy stories, here’s template you can customize for your own organization Creating A Legacy: Gathering Stories  It provides an introductory page that you can review with your planned giving donors, a suggested list of autobiographical questions, and a story consent form.  Rather than having to search out the story after receiving the bequest, I’ve been able to gather many stories from donors that are now sitting in files, waiting to be told, once their legacy gifts are received.


About Norma Cameron, CFRE

Norma Cameron is owner and principal of The Narrative Company, formed in 2006 to help people and organizations understand and apply the “power of story”. Prior to this, Norma had over 20 years’ experience in communications, fundraising, organizational development, performance storytelling, public speaking and training. As an engaging keynote speaker and seminar leader, she works with public, private and non-profit sector clients. As a seasoned storyteller, she has performed at conferences, concerts and festivals across Canada and the UK.
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