Sewanee Building Great Teachers

November 2, 2015

In 2006, Bill and Leslye Altemeier met John Grammer one morning for coffee at the Blue Chair in Sewanee to discuss the Sewanee School of Letters. The Altemeiers, who own a seasonal home in Sewanee, had been regulars at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival and also at readings conducted by visiting authors from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the new School of Letters. At a music festival concert, the Altemeiers had pulled a card from a poster about gift opportunities, and they were ready to help.

As a result of that breakfast, Leslye and Bill decided to launch a new scholarship for public school teachers who were earning a master’s degree through the School of Letters. “We didn’t want the scholarship to cover the full cost, because we thought the student should also have an investment,” said Bill. “We wanted our scholarship to cover tuition, with the student picking up the cost of room and board.” The Scholarship was called the Altemeier Prize.

“We agreed to fund one student for the whole of their time at the School of Letters, and then we would see where to go from there,” Bill said. The School of Letters offers an M.A. in literature as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing. Both degrees help teachers by providing Master’s level education and also helping them gain better mastery of their subject matter.

Over the next few years, one Altemeier prizewinner became two, and during that time the couple moved from Missouri to San Antonio. With the initial promise kept and even exceeded, the Altemeiers decided to think about other philanthropic causes. At the graduation of Christopher Clark, MFA ’12 and Lori Bratten-DiCiaula, MFA ’13, the couple decided to take a break.

Then last year, Clark wrote the Altemeiers a long letter thanking them for their influence on and help in his education. That prompted another breakfast meeting in the summer of 2014, this time at the new Sewanee Inn, attended by the Altemeiers, John Grammer and April Alvarez from the School of Letters, Tom Sanders from Advancement, and Provost John Swallow.  “It was a wonderful letter,” Bill said. “It was a private correspondence, so I don’t feel right about sharing it, but it made us really think about the Altemeier Prize again.”

While the Altemeiers love Sewanee and characterize it as a “magical place,” the couple is also motivated by an interest in improving education. “Our future depends on it,” said Bill. “Kids have to keep up. They will see to our security, make our products. And education is not in the best of shape. We are very concerned about public education, and we want to support it through our philanthropy to Sewanee.”

The Altemeier Prize does that. It is awarded to a public school teacher who is enrolled at the School of Letters in order to become a better teacher.

“We love the multiplier effect,” said Bill. “If you teach one student, you have done a great thing. If you teach a class of twenty students, then that is even better. But if you teach a teacher who goes on to a 30-year career, that is a lot of kids.”

While the purpose of the Altemeier Prize is to support public education, the “why Sewanee” came from having a home in the area. Neither Bill nor Leslye are alumni and none of their children attended Sewanee. Instead, they are very generous neighbors. “We appreciate the fact that the University welcomes the public to events like the music festival and the writers’ conference,” said Leslye. “Those opportunities make Sewanee a wonderful place to live, and we would not have had a house there for the last 26 years without the University. We are privileged to be a part of the community.”

“The Altemeiers are great friends of the School of Letters,” noted John Grammer, the program’s director. “From the beginning Bill and Leslye shared our dream of giving teachers a chance to attend a first-rate master's degree program.  Their gifts continue to help the dream come true, and I know the teachers they've helped--and their students--are as grateful as I am.”