Sarah Wallis Stevens, who for two decades served as “First Lady” of Williston Academy, died peacefully in her sleep Feb. 9 of natural causes at her assisted living home in Middletown, Connecticut, according to her family.
Sarah Stevens was the wife of Phillips Stevens, headmaster of the Easthampton-based academy from 1949 to 1972. The school, founded in 1841 as Williston Seminary, merged with the Northampton School for Girls in 1971 to form the coed Williston Northampton School, which now attracts students from around the world.
Described as a woman of “extraordinary warmth and empathy,” Stevens provided care and guidance to thousands of Williston Academy students, said her daughter Ruth P. Stevens, who lives in New York City.
“Our mom was an irrepressibly social human being, more interested in others than herself, and she made a lasting impact on the lives on many, both in Easthampton and in the world,” she said.
The youngest of 10, Sarah Wallis was born in 1916 into a prominent Philadelphia family, attended the Friends Central School in Pennsylvania and graduated from Smith College in 1938. She spent her junior year in Paris, starting a love affair with France that would last her entire life.
Wallis married Phillips Stevens of New Haven in 1939. A decade later, the couple moved to Easthampton, where Stevens served as headmaster of Williston Academy for more than 20 years, eventually helping to shepherd the merger that created the modern coed boarding school.
The family lived at the Samuel Williston Homestead at 19 Payson Ave., which then served as the headmaster’s residence. The updated building is now the admissions office for the school, which in 2016 is celebrating its 175th anniversary.
Stevens raised six children while serving the traditional role of headmaster’s wife. She organized faculty wives to arrange flowers for the chapel, hosted teas for visiting athletic teams and served Sunday night waffle and salad dinners for the senior class at the couple’s home.
Stevens hosted distinguished visitors at the Homestead, maintained a broad correspondence, served as president of the Easthampton Mothers Club and taught Sunday school at the Easthampton Congregational church.
Enthusiastic tennis and squash players, “Sarah and Phil” were familiar figures on the school’s courts. In retirement, the couple spent time in the West Indies, and later settled in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and Jensen Beach, Florida. When Phillips Stevens died in 1994, his obituary appeared in the New York Times. The 1964 Phillips Stevens Chapel at Williston is named for the former headmaster.
Williston archivist Richard Teller said he had known Sarah Wallis Stevens his entire life, because his father was a faculty member and he was friends with the Stevens’ children. “She was a wonderful woman. I was constantly over at their house as a child. It was a big house, so there was plenty of room for use to play,” Teller said.
Teller said that at alumnae reunions, former students would line up to speak with her. “She remembered everyone’s name,” said Teller. “She was a great storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor.”
Teller also spoke of the tenure of Phillips Stevens, saying 1949 to 1972 “were years of tremendous change and growth.” Stevens moved the academy from crumbling facilities downtown to the current campus, and completed an ambitious building program. The school expanded, academic standards were raised and international enrollment increased, Teller said. Finally, Stevens during his last two years as headmaster presided over the historical merger.
Sarah Wallis Stevens is survived by her children — Phillips Stevens, Jr., of Buffalo, New York; Peter Wallis Stevens of Shelburne; David Stetson Stevens II of Lambertville, New Jersey; Jonathan Buell Stevens of Fredericksburg, Virginia; Ruth Palmer Stevens of New York City; and Timothy Herschal Stevens of Portland, Oregon — and by eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Phillips and Sarah Stevens Scholarship Fund at the Williston Northampton School. Friends are invited to a celebration of life to be held in the Phillips Stevens Chapel on Saturday, Aug. 13, at 1:30 p.m.