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Remembering Molly Wiley

Aug 11, 2010
by Priscilla Proctor

Flagler’s beloved benefactor leaves a rich legacy of friendship and philanthropy

Longtime friend and benefactor of Flagler College, Mary Lily Flagler Lewis Wiley, affectionately known as “Molly,” passed away peacefully at her home in Richmond, Va., this past May. She was 90.

Wiley, a philanthropist related to oil titan and railroad magnate, Henry Flagler, grew up in St. Augustine at Kirkside, the mansion built by Henry Flagler next to Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Wiley and her brother, Lawrence Lewis Jr., were related to Henry Flagler through their mother, Louise Wise Lewis Francis, who was the niece of Mary Lily Kenan Flagler. Mary Lily married Henry Flagler in 1901.

From the inception of Flagler College in the late 1960s, Wiley played an important and significant role in the college’s growth that spanned the college’s entire 42-year history. She donated many gifts to the college and stepped forward on many occasions, lending not only financial assistance, but support in many other ways.

“Molly was very philanthropic, and she was very generous with her gifts to Flagler College, said President William T. Abare Jr. “She was a friend to the college, and she had a deep interest in the college; that interest was obviously developed through her brother, Lawrence, whom she adored.”

When asked in a 2006 interview what stood out as the greatest change as well as the most interesting development in the history of Flagler College, Wiley was quick to reply that it was impossible to emotionally tabulate the satisfaction of the success of Flagler College.

“It was just glorious to witness that beautiful building — the Ponce de Leon Hotel — come to being … a great big, wonderful, successful college,” she said.

She was also asked how she would describe Flagler College and its philosophy to people who might not have ever visited St. Augustine. Her reply was swift and filled with pride and sentiment.

“I would tell them that the history of the building [Ponce de Leon] is so unique that if they send a child there [Flagler College], they have to realize that they are in a kind of ‘hallowed ground.’ There is nothing like it. This was the first building that Flagler built in Florida, and by itself, it’s a glorious building. It’s a monument to architecture. To have something that unique that was just dropped in our laps is just too good to be true, and it should never be wasted,” she said. “Thanks to Bill Proctor [Flagler College’s President from 1971-2001 and now its Chancellor], and thanks to Bill Abare, it’s a glorious place.”

Proctor also remembers Wiley fondly.

“Ms. Wiley was a delightful and charming lady,” he said. “She was generous beyond measure, and I enjoyed our every encounter. She was unfailing in her support of her brother, Lawrence, and all that he did to establish Flagler College. Even after his death, she continued her support of Flagler College.”

Although Wiley was a very giving person, many also remember her for her smile, energy, love for golf, entertaining and her infectious laugh.

“She was a very outgoing person who made me feel welcome whenever I would visit her,” Abare said.

Abare also said she was always happy to see him and genuinely interested in how the college was doing.

“She was an exceedingly generous person who had a genuine interest in the institution,” Abare said. “That interest came from within. It was never something that we were trying to find an area in which she might have some interest – whether it had something to do with the drama department, endowing a scholarship for the best students we had coming in or participating in the construction of the dormitories or library – all of those projects, Molly had some interest in.”

Not many women can boast that they hit the links with golf pro Sam Sneed or danced with Fred Astaire, but Wiley did both.

“She was an avid golfer and she competed even into her 70s and early 80s,” Abare said. “She won several club championships at courses that she belonged to, and she played with some very famous golfers.”

John D. Bailey Sr., who has been on the Board of Trustees at Flagler College from the very beginning, recalled his last visit with Wiley.

“My wife Peggy and I went to visit Molly about a year ago,” he said. “My purpose in visiting her was two-fold: first, I wanted to satisfy myself with a final visit to a great lady who was very instrumental and so supportive of Flagler College from the beginning to the time of her passing. During our visit, it was important for me to convey to her – and I think she understood – how much it meant to the college to have her support.”

Bailey also said he wanted to visit Wiley because she was a fun-loving lady who was a joy to be around.

“She was a classic lady,” he said. “She always had a great smile on her face. Even after Lawrence was deceased, Molly, on her own, continued to make generous donations to the college. That was a tremendous help in getting where we are today.”

In a note to Abare in 2004, Wiley wrote, “Dear Bill, I am so proud of Flagler College! The ‘Little College that Could’ is the greatest! Love, Molly”

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