The Passing of Stephen R. Birrell ’64

To the Williams community,

As we announced last week, Stephen Birrell ’64, who worked at Williams for 25 years, died last Wednesday, May 17. Williams has lost a beloved member of our community, and I write today with a full commemoration.

Steve’s many contributions to the college were profound and lasting. When he arrived in 1984 as the associate director of development, he oversaw the 25th reunion program and parent capital giving, to which were added the annual parents’ fund and major gift prospects. Seven years later, he left to become director of development and alumni relations at Amherst College. But his absence was brief; he returned to his alma mater soon after to serve as vice president for alumni relations and development, a role he maintained until his retirement in 2009.

In each of his capacities, Steve made Williams a better place. He supported and mentored colleagues, built ties with and community among alumni and formed innumerous friendships in the process. Outside the demands of his job, he gave Williams his time as class secretary, associate agent, admission representative, on the Alumni Executive Committee, and on his 50th Reunion Fund Committee.

Steve graduated from Williams in 1964, During his undergraduate years he played soccer and basketball, was president of the Junior Advisors and of Delta Upsilon, a member of the Gargoyle Society, winner of the Grosvenor Cup and voted the most popular member of his class—a result unlikely to surprise those of us who knew him later in life. He then went on to earn a Master’s in teaching from Wesleyan University and served in the U.S. Navy as Lieutenant, Junior Grade. Following his discharge, he took a job at Brown University as director of student teaching and the university’s Summer High School. He later earned a second Master’s, in public administration, from the University of New Hampshire, where he served as coordinator of teacher education and then assistant director of development for corporate and foundation support.

Here at Williams, Steve will be fondly remembered for reasons professional and personal. On the job he had incredible fundraising prowess. He created and managed the major gift program for the Third Century Campaign, which raised $173M—the most ever by a liberal arts college at the time. He next conceived and led the Williams Campaign, which exceeded its $400 million goal by an additional $100 million, thanks to gifts from a record number of alumni. Indeed, Steve was the originator of the concept of Williams’ “second endowment”: his description of the alumni loyalty, affection and dedication, generosity, and goodwill from which Williams benefits in so many ways. Steve’s outstanding work in nurturing that commitment helped earn recognition from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which honored Williams with their 2001 Circle of Excellence Award in Educational Fund-Raising.

“Steve was important to so many of us in the world of alumni relations and development,” said Megan Morey, vice president for college relations. “Always leading with integrity and a healthy dose of humor, he was an amazing mentor, coach and friend to all and cared deeply about Williams alumni and their perpetual role in the life of the college.”

Steve was deeply devoted to community service, too. He served on the board of directors of the New Hampshire Council on Fund Raising and on the Military Academies Selection Board of U.S. Senator Warren Rudman. He also served as chairman of the New Hampshire State Council for Teacher Education. Locally, he was president of the Williams Faculty Club and served on the board of Greylock A.B.C. (A Better Chance) and the Western Massachusetts Regional Board of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, as well as the development committee for the North Adams Regional Hospital, now known as Berkshire Health North. Steve was also a trustee of the Williamstown Theater Festival and later an emeritus board member.

Williams Trustee Emeritus Dusty Griffin ’65, a friend and frequent partner for Steve’s walks, describes Steve’s warmth and ease with people: “Steve was an easy-going and outgoing guy. He liked people. He could talk to anybody. I think that made him a good fundraiser. I enjoyed weekly walks in his last couple of years, first in his Bulkley St. neighborhood and then on the college track. He was unfailingly cheerful during his last months, ruefully acknowledging his loss of short-term memory but regularly able to bring back stories from his high school and college days.”

Executive Director of Alumni Relations Brooks Foehl ’88 P’25 ’23 ’19 ’14 valued Steve as a mentor and friend. “Williams was blessed to have Steve Birrell as a member of its family,” Brooks writes, “and he was a leader within our family in so many ways. He was a dedicated alum and a pillar of his Class of 1964. Steve also dedicated his professional career to the fields of alumni relations and development, and Williams was the beneficiary of his two lengthy stretches at the helm of our operations. He was a ‘servant leader’ beloved by colleagues and alumni, and a person who improved the lives of countless others through his work on their behalf. We will forever be grateful to him.”

Steve’s survivors include his wife Polly, his daughters Rebecca Birrell Smith and Stephanie Birrell Luedke, and their spouses and his four grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter, Kathleen Birrell Utley ’96. The family is not planning a community event at this time.

Our thoughts go out to Steve’s loved ones and his many friends and former colleagues.