In early March, the Penland community lost a person who quietly made a deep impact on the school. Donna Jean Dreyer, who died at age 88, worked at Penland from 1986 through 1995 in publications, marketing, and fundraising. She kept the wider community informed through Penland’s newsletter, The Penland Line; she worked with designer Alicia Keshishian to define a basic format and tone for Penland’s workshop catalogs that persist to this day; she helped create Penland’s development office; and she was a trusted advisor to staff throughout the organization.
Donna Jean’s most significant contribution to the school, however, came several years after she retired, when the board asked her to step in as interim director in 1997. Earlier in her life, she had been the personnel director for the American Friends Service Committee, and, following that, she accepted a series of interim director positions in the Committee’s regional offices. This experience, combined with her strong Penland connection, made her uniquely qualified to guide the school through a moment of uncertainty and turmoil.
She gathered the staff together and clearly articulated some basic principles that would guide the next year. She carefully divided decisions and tasks between the ones she needed to deal with and the ones best left for the permanent director who would follow her. It was not a time for grand visions of the future. It was a time when wounds were healed, structural problems were addressed, and stability was restored.
After she turned the director’s office over to Jean McLaughlin, the staff commissioned resident artist Hoss Haley to make a beautiful concrete bench in her honor. It sits just above the volleyball court and includes a plaque that says, “She used her mind and her heart to nurture the work of our hands.” She lived the rest of her life in nearby Yancey County and maintained friendships with many in the school community. Various staff members continued to turn to her for advice and institutional history.
In 1996, after Donna Jean’s first Penland retirement, Dana Moore, who was program director for many years, wrote a tribute for The Penland Line. She distilled much of what was special about Donna Jean, and it seems appropriate to post part of that tribute here.
In trying to say something about Donna Jean, splashy anecdotes and knee slappers don’t come to mind. What I can tell about is this:
A person with uncommon wisdom who has an easy relationship with truth that the rest of us don’t always have.
A disarming honesty motivated by a deep compassion; if she has something difficult to say, she sticks with you until long after the shock has worn off.
An ability to distill and refine a complex situation into a well-posed problem.
A person who brings the same fairness and humanity to small choices that she brings to big issues.
A person who holds the center during times of flux and transition.
Donna Jean is simply the best thinker I know, with a way of taking a poetic route to the heart of a matter.
Though Penland shapes us all, some of us also shape Penland. In Donna Jean, Penland has been shaped by a force of goodwill that has warmed our future, and we thank her.