Just after they graduated in 1953, Jane Chace Carroll and Isabel Brown Wilson decided they wanted to see the world. “We were young and looking for a new adventure,” Carroll recalled. So they booked a trip and spent weeks traveling together through Europe, meeting the locals, enjoying the food and drink, and admiring art at every stop. “We rented a car and drove from Paris to Scandinavia, and then took the ferry over to England from Norway,” Carroll said. They had so much fun that they decided to do it again three years later, this time to Istanbul and Greece.
“That was Isabel,” Carroll said. “She had a wonderful curiosity about the world and a wonderful love of life. She was always game for doing anything, and she always made it fun.”
Following Wilson’s death on March 27 in Houston, members of the Smith community, friends, and fellow classmates remember her as a champion of the arts, a generous philanthropist responsible for one of Smith’s largest gifts, and a caring friend.
“The Smith community has lost a dear friend,” said Smith College President Carol Christ. “Isabel often talked about the ways in which her own life had been enriched by her time at Smith and especially by her study of art. She was witty, sharply perceptive, and unfailingly gracious. We will miss her dearly.”
Born in Houston, Wilson was the daughter of industrialist George Brown and Alice Pratt Brown. Along with her sisters, Nancy Brown Negley and Maconda Brown O’Connor MSW ’85, she eventually oversaw the work of the family’s Brown Foundation, which supports education, the arts, and community service initiatives, primarily in Texas.
Wilson arrived at Smith at a time when women were beginning to take on new roles in society, and she embraced the intellectual life she found on campus. She knew almost immediately that she wanted to major in art. “That was her passion,” said Carroll, who lived in Parsons House with Wilson. “She was so knowledgeable about it and had great appreciation for it. It was something she talked about all the time.”
Later in life, Wilson reflected on her time at Smith. “Majoring in the history of art was one of the cleverest things I ever did,” she noted. “It has given me a great deal of pleasure. One of the first things I do in any city is go to the museum. I get more enjoyment out of the visual arts, as many of us do, than any other of the arts.”
She also loved being among other intelligent young women. At the time, according to Carroll, many young women who came to Smith from the South, as Wilson did, returned home after two years in New England to attend coed southern universities, at the urging of their parents. “But Isabel didn’t want to do that,” Carroll recalled. “She was devoted to Smith and wanted to stay. She loved the professors and the art department, and it was important that she get her degree from Smith.”
Ruth Lieder ’53, another longtime friend, remembers meeting Wilson almost daily at the Davis Center, where students would gather to study and socialize. “We’d sit around and smoke and drink our coffee and laugh,” Lieder recalled. “She had a tremendous sense of humor, and she was always so calm about everything. During exams, everyone else would start to look like hell because they were so stressed out, but Isabel always had everything under control and was always on top of her school work.”
After graduating from Smith, Wilson took a job as a reporter for The Houston Press. A number of years later, she went to New York as a management trainee for Manufacturers’ Trust Co.; she was the first woman to enter that program. She eventually married, had two children, and divorced. Several years later, she married Wallace Wilson, whom she had first met while she was at Smith and he was a student at Yale. Together, they became one of Houston’s most well-known couples and generous philanthropists, serving on various boards, including the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities, and regularly supporting the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Smith has always been intertwined with Wilson’s life. She served for ten years (1993–2003) as a member of the board of trustees; she was a member of the Trustee Investment Committee and co-chaired the Smith College Campaign Steering Committee from 1998 through 2003. She also served as reunion chair for her twenty-fifth and thirtieth reunions, and was a member of the Smith Club of Houston.
Former Smith College President Mary Maples Dunn remembers Wilson as a committed volunteer who knew how to ask the right questions. “What I liked best about her was that she was so darned smart,” Dunn said. “Very understated, but really smart and analytical. She did tremendous things for Smith.”
Wilson’s love was the Smith College Museum of Art, which she often called “one of the best college museums in the country.” For many years, she served as a member of the museum’s Visiting Committee, which advises museum staff on collections and trends in the industry. Jessica Nicoll ’83, director and chief curator of the Museum of Art, worked closely with Wilson and was always impressed by her depth of knowledge about art and her appreciation for the role museums play in their communities. “To every conversation, Isabel brought an unmatched level of understanding of how museums operate,” Nicoll said. “She always challenged us to see if what we were doing really measured up to what was happening in the field.” In particular, Nicoll said, Wilson was very supportive of the museum’s education initiatives.
In 1997, Wilson, along with her sister Maconda and cousin Louisa Stude Sarofim ’58, through the Brown Foundation, donated $14 million to Smith; it was one of the largest gifts in the college’s history. Of that amount, $10 million went toward a massive renovation of the museum in 2000 that resulted in new space for the art department and art library, expanded gallery space, new classrooms, and better storage areas. “[Isabel] had a visionary sense of shaping the museum in ways that enhanced its role in the education of our students,” said President Christ. In honor of the Brown family, the complex that houses the museum and the art department is named the Brown Fine Arts Center. Today, the Museum of Art stands as one of the premier college museums in the world, renowned for its collections in Asian, African, and contemporary art.
While Wilson’s charitable contributions certainly have had a profound impact on the campus, it was perhaps the gift of her time and her deep friendships with classmates that were most meaningful to those who knew her. She, Jane Carroll, and Janet Wright Ketcham ’53 would often get together in New York for art shows and meetings of the Smith museum’s Visiting Committee. The last time they all saw each other was in early March, and it was as if time had never passed. “We all went out to eat and had a terrific time,” said Ketcham. “She was a delight, just lovely, and it was a gift to have known her.”
Ruth Lieder echoes Ketcham’s sentiment. “I’ll miss her terribly,” she said. “The beautiful thing was that she never changed. She was funny and smart and loyal. And, of course, that beautiful southern drawl of hers only added to her charm.”
A campus memorial service is being planned for September.