Maria Campbell Finds Joy in Adventure and in Giving

Nestled among boulders of Warren Point sandstone, Maria Campbell’s Sewanee home looks out over the receding ridges heading toward Sherwood. As you turn down the drive you see a sign, “The Laughing Place,” and Campbell greets visitors with an explanation. “My father would say, ‘we are going on an adventure to a laughing place,’” she says, “and that was the sign for my mother to get worried. She always thought our adventures were dangerous.”


For Campbell, a native of Georgia and a longtime resident of Alabama, Sewanee itself was a kind of laughing place, a place where she has found happy interludes for most of her life. That embedded sense of home is one reason Campbell has made a substantial estate commitment to the School of Theology of $1million, which she insists be an unrestricted gift.


“I think when donors put too many restrictions on the use of their gifts, then the giving loses some of its joy,” she says. “I would rather be open to the possibilities that my gift creates than to try to retain control. The legal term is mortmain, literally “dead hand.” I can imagine what might happen because of my gift, but I could never imagine all of what God can accomplish with my gift. Part of my joy in giving is thinking about the endless possibilities.”


Campbell’s connection with Sewanee began when she was a child. Her father, an Episcopal priest in Columbus, Georgia, organized summer retreats with another family from Milledgeville. The two families and others would meet on the Mountain to study and pray and worship with other Episcopalians. “This was before Sewanee really developed the summertime Advanced Degrees Program, so my father organized his own study and renewal sessions on the Mountain, she says.”


Later, as a student at Agnes Scott, Campbell came with friends as one of the “imported girls for party weekend.” And then as an adult, after her father died and her mother remarried, Campbell purchased a home in Sewanee so she could be near her mother and stepfather. “I have had many good times in Sewanee, met many wonderful people, and as a result, this place has slowly put its arms around me.”


A lifelong Episcopalian, Campbell has been a force in The Episcopal Church. As an attorney in Alabama, she worked for what is now Regions Bank. She retired in the early 90s to take a position as executive assistant to the rector at Trinity Wall Street, essentially the chief operating officer of the parish. “A friend I had met at General Convention was doing consulting for Trinity and he was looking for someone who knew something about banking, finance, and the law who could step in to help the institution. He and Dan Matthews, the rector, flew to Alabama and hot-boxed me! I found myself retiring from my legal career to work in New York City.” That opportunity put Campbell in New York for the parish’s 300th anniversary, where she met Queen Elizabeth (twice) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, among other notables.


Campbell has also long been involved with stewardship education in the Church, delivering a program that was originally title “the Alabama Plan,” which helped individuals make plans that would lead them to tithe. As far as her own philanthropy is concerned, she places her gift to Sewanee in a larger context. “I definitely want to support the Church, and I want to support education. And at the same time, I want to support institutions that are fiscally careful and also expansive. I see those traits in the School of Theology.” Despite her reluctance to place restrictions on her philanthropy, however, she does have expectations. “I hope the School will continue to grow into being at the cutting edge of Christian values for the 21st century. I do not see the School as an institution that hides, but one that is embracing the future with courage.”