Quiet Leader, Remarkable Legacy
Janet Wilson’s passion for education will continue long after she passed
In 2011, a visitor to the then-newly opened, inpatient hospice facility in Caldwell County likely would have noticed the gardens. On difficult days, they offered a bright spot or a moment of peace for patients, families, volunteers and staff.
There’s a chance, too, that a visitor might have seen a woman – silver hair pushed back – hard at work, tending to the garden, making sure it could help improve someone else’s life.
If the visitor didn’t know any better, they might assume Janet Wilson was simply a volunteer who enjoyed gardening. This was true. What’s also true is that Wilson was one of the largest financial donors to Caldwell Hospice – the gardens were her vision. She helped fund and design the tranquil space.
“Janet was out there digging, planting seeds and plants, making sure everything was in the right place,” said Peg Broyhill, a longtime friend of Wilson’s who served on multiple nonprofit boards with the philanthropist. “She helped finance the gardens, but you never heard about that. She just loved doing the work and saw what was needed and what it could mean for patients and their families to look out on it in their final days.”
That’s how Janet Wilson approached each project, cause and community need she took on. Her tenacity, drive and vision, along with remarkable humility, is what allowed her to become one of the most impactful philanthropists in North Carolina.
Wilson was especially passionate about education and wanted to make a significant impact on the children in her community. Like the gardens at the hospice facility, she wasn’t content to simply donate money. With the Foundation’s help, she developed a vision for what that impact could look like and was willing to participate at every level to see it through.
Janet Wilson wanted every child in Caldwell County to have access to free pre-K education. And with great resolve and a transformative philanthropic investment, she made it happen.
BIG PART OF A SMALL TOWN
Wilson grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Wellesley College in 1955 and married Davidson College and Harvard Business School graduate Henry later that same year. A Morganton native with family ties to the furniture industry, Henry’s career brought them back to North Carolina.
They settled in Caldwell County and quickly became a big part of the small town of Lenoir. They joined civic clubs and a church. They started a family and raised three children. Janet sang in the church choir, played on the local tennis team and served as PTA president.
When their children were older, Janet’s own education journey began – again. She went back to school and, earned her master’s in psychology from Appalachian State University and was appointed to the Caldwell County School Board in 1972. Committed and effective from the start, Wilson served 16 years at a local level, and held leadership positions with several state-level education agencies, including the North Carolina School Boards Association and the North Carolina General Assembly’s Public Education Policy Council.
“Janet was brilliant, gracious and a quiet leader who didn’t like fanfare or attention brought to herself,” said Broyhill. “But she also was a competitor. No matter what she undertook, she was very determined to get the best outcomes.”
Generous and devoted to their community, the Wilsons supported a wide range of community needs and local causes throughout their 47 years together.
Henry passed away unexpectedly in 2003, and Janet was introduced to FFTC by Robin Hinson, her estate attorney. Hinson had previously helped structure several large, transformative philanthropic gifts with the Foundation and set up a meeting with then FFTC President and CEO Michael Marsicano and Senior Vice President Holly Welch Stubbing.
“Janet’s belief was that if she was going to establish a significant philanthropic legacy, she wanted to make an impact in a very direct way, and know there was success attached to it,” said Stubbing. “She saw the disparities in her community, and the folks that had access to pre-K, and the folks who did not. And she read reports and studies on the impact of pre-K on children and their future.”
Janet came to believe that pre-K was the singular most important thing that would impact a person. From this spun the idea of creating a fund to provide pre-K education to every child in Caldwell County.
Wilson opened her anonymous fund in 2006 to provide long-term support for quality preschool education for all students in Caldwell County. The fund was established at the Foundation with annual distributions from charitable lead trusts. Wilson took a conservative approach with the goal of creating a long-term endowment for the children in the county. Her strategy worked and the gifts from the trusts grew significantly, creating a lasting endowment for the future.
Today, the fund is FFTC’s second-largest endowment.
FOCUSED ON THE IMPACT
Wilson’s deep experience in education gave her insights that she used to inform how the fund would be used.
“After spending as many years as she did in education, Janet knew – and research has shown us – that the first five years of life is when 80% of brain development takes place,” said Vickie Sproul, literacy director for Caldwell County Schools who worked closely with Wilson. “So, if you can help them
when they’re hungry to learn and grow and explore, you can make the biggest impact.”
When she established the fund with FFTC, Wilson was determined to measure its impact over time and establish a longitudinal study to accompany the support. She wanted to
be able to track progress, leverage successes and learn from challenges.
“It’s rare to have somebody that is a visionary and also knows how to execute a program,” said Stubbing. “And she absolutely understood the elements of both.”
“Janet was very focused and smart about her generosity,” said Sproul. “For her, it was about, what’s the impact going to be? What does the data show? How does it lead us to that next investment?”
Initial grants from the fund were used to reinstate Rising Stars, a three-week summer program that helped prepare children for kindergarten. It had previously been cut for budget reasons.
In 2011, its first year back, Rising Stars served 180 students. By 2014, Rising it had expanded to a four-week program with classrooms in all Caldwell County elementary schools, serving 280 students. “In a way, Rising Stars was a trial run to study and plan for the full-scale investment,” said Stubbing.
It also allowed the fund to continue to grow through the annual distributions and earnings. In 2015 and over the next five years, the fund invested in both Rising Stars and pre-K classrooms, staff and infrastructure to build out the full academic-year program across Caldwell’s elementary schools.
When the fund opened, there were three pre-K classrooms in the system. By 2018, 12 of the district’s 15 elementary schools operated pre-K classes. The county reported that 62% of rising kindergarteners were enrolled in Caldwell County pre-K classes, up from 31% in the 2015-16 school year.
Enrollment in Caldwell’s program and in others across the state took a significant hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that has begun to rebound. In 2021-2022 and 2022-2023, the district’s pre-K enrollment was at 41%, and it has 359 pre-K students enrolled for the 2023-2024 school year.
A CHANGE AGENT
Today, Caldwell County Schools is widely recognized by other school districts for its pre-K program.
Beyond the curriculum and models being developed and used in the classroom, the funding has allowed Sproul and her team to collect, analyze and use data – qualitative and quantitative – from classrooms, student outcomes and teacher feedback to make changes and improve. They’ve also been able to share these insights with other districts, providing impact beyond Caldwell County.
“(Janet) just really wanted to make life better for other people, and she did in so many ways. And she still is through the program that she started with the Foundation,” said Broyhill. “To say she is missed is an understatement. But she’ll always be impacting people through everything she helped build here, and through that vision of pre-K education.”
Since 2011, the fund has distributed more than $67 million to invest in the district’s pre-K programming.
Wilson passed away in March 2020, but her influence on students, their families, teachers and her community continues to run deep and reach far. In large part, this is a result of both her vision and the philanthropic strategy she used to achieve it – but, also, that’s just who she was.
“Janet was a change agent,” said Sproul. “The impact of what Janet did, and the philanthropic work that was a gift to this community, has and will continue to impact us for the rest of our lives. Janet changed lives. Children … parents … me.”