Meet the Couple who Funded the Gilbert/OSilas Renovations

Si and Vicki Ford on their visit to Sarah Lawrence. Photo credit: JinRun Han

Si and Vicki Ford on their visit to Sarah Lawrence. Photo credit: JinRun Han

Vicki Ford slowly takes in her surroundings: the brand new green and gray carpeting, the radiant mustard-colored walls of the common room and the crisp white color of the hallways. She makes her way into one of the dorms and gasps as she steps foot in an open room, seeing the newly refurbished residence hall, OSilas, for the first time. 
Trustee and alumna Vicki Ford (BA ‘60 and MA ‘87) and her husband Si Ford began working on this renovation gift to the college about two years ago. Since being closed for a year due to construction, the hall has officially reopened its doors to students for the 2016 fall semester. 

The hall, formerly known as “Gilbert,” now entitled “OSilas,” is a combination of Vicki and Si Ford’s given names, Olivia and Silas, respectively. But it was a name they did not create. In the early 1990s when electronic mail was first becoming popular, there was a computer glitch that conjoined their names. Amused by their new couple name that was, as Vicki Ford stated, “made up by a machine,” they began adopting it as a kind of brand, using the name for their family foundation and a few other philanthropic projects.

As a trustee, Vicki Ford serves as the liaison between the board and the Physical Facilities Committee. After a survey of the campus’ infrastructure, the committee produced a written and detailed evaluation. According to Vicki Ford, “there was 30 years of delayed maintenance throughout the entire campus.” 

Having lived in Gilbert during her freshman and sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence, Vicki Ford decided to focus the first round of renovation efforts on her former residence hall through a large donation from her and her husband. The couple worked with Ellen Reynolds, the Associate Vice President of Advancement, to execute the renovation. Reynolds noted Vicki Ford’s nostalgic appreciation of the past and her optimism towards preserving it, but added, “We walked through [Gilbert]—it definitely needed a lot of work.”

However, as Vicki Ford said, when Gilbert was built in 1927, it was very “forethinking.” Abby Lester, College Archivist, relayed the history of the residence hall. The building was named after Frank B. Gilbert, one of the college’s original trustees, who served from 1926 until his passing in 1927.  As a former Deputy Commissioner of Education of the State of New York and a lawyer, Gilbert played a crucial role in gaining the provisional charter for Sarah Lawrence College’s founding in 1926. According to Reynolds, like Gilbert, Vicki Ford has also played a crucial role in the development of the college. 

“She is one of the most extraordinary philanthropists I’ve ever worked with, and she is one of the most dedicated alums to this college,” Reynolds said.

The Fords have been important donors to many Sarah Lawrence projects.  They have contributed funds to beautifying Sarah Lawrence, the Center for the Urban River at Beczak (CURB), and “Ahead of the Curve”, which is the $200 million campaign for Sarah Lawrence. According to Reynolds, most of Vicki Ford’s philanthropy work strives to build and strengthen communities.

Reynolds said, “[She is] changing communities in all the ways that I think would make this college proud and also make the college a richer place because of what she has done.”

Vicki Ford said her mother, also a Sarah Lawrence graduate (‘36), was a major influence in her attending the school.

“She thought that the way they taught around a round table and did the seminar system was the best way to learn information,” Vicki said. “She said that the curiosity that a human being can have and the confidence to ask questions and to frame your own direction was the most important thing that could happen. So that’s what she wanted for me.”

Vicki said she had a similar college experience as her mother, and it's for that reason she's continuously donated to and worked with the college for most of her life. Vicki Ford hopes that the renovations to OSilas will only amplify Sarah Lawrence’s exceptionality.

“I think people, if they really are happy living in a place that is up to code, up to standards, that’s attractive, it’s going to make their experience of being in college nicer, and they’re going to feel more at ease about being here,” Vicki Ford said. Reynolds agreed with Vicki Ford’s assessment, saying, “[Vicki] wants [the students] to have all the resources and the same culture and the intimate and transformational experience she had when she was a student.”

While touring OSilas, Vicki Ford talked to one of the residents, Sarah Noonan (‘19), who relayed her first year experience in Westlands: “There were two or three times when we found cockroaches in our room.” But she affirmed, “It’s really nice [in OSilas], and since it’s brand new, it’s probably not going to have that issue.”

One of the most noticeable changes to OSilas is the common room. “It’s all so new, so everything is just really nice," Noonan said. "The living room area is amazing [...] there’s a massive flat screen TV. I haven’t done anything with it yet, but I’ve already got plans.”

Developing the common area was a significant focus for Vicki Ford. She found that room to be exceptionally crucial during her residence in Gilbert. A few decades after she graduated, however, the room was transformed into faculty offices, and walls were erected that divided the room. Vicki decided to have the walls torn down and the room turned back into a living room.

“I think that the most important thing for our group when we were living there, way back when, was having a common meeting place where everyone could come,” Vicki Ford said. 

Although the basement, which will have new laundry facilities, is still under construction, it will be finished later this year. Otherwise, OSilas’ plumbing, study rooms, tiles, walls, and carpeting have all been redone. Vicki said she hopes that this OSilas Gift inspires other alumni donations so that the school can continue its facility repairs.  

“I think that’s what’s most exciting, that you can take an old shell and you can make it come to life,” Vicki Ford said, sitting in her old dorm living room that she has now made anew.

Victoria Mcyue '20

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