WC’s Guardian Angel
Nina Rodale Houghton, a Washington College parent and grandparent, a member of Washington College’s Board of Visitors and Governors, and a civic leader and philanthropist supporting many organizations, passed away March 15. Nina’s passion for helping others imbued everything she did; her interests ranged from civil rights and participatory democracy to education and the environment. In her later years in Chestertown, she adopted her granddaughter’s sorority and hosted them numerous times for dinner at her Cannon Street residence. On Halloween, she would welcome the children of College faculty and staff to her home to trick-or-treat for books.
As a child, Nina learned the principles of sustainable agriculture and advocacy from her father, a pioneer of organic agriculture who understood the relationship between healthy soil, wholesome diet and good health. In an early chapter of her life, she and her first husband raised seals and ran a floating marine laboratory in the Florida Keys. Those lessons learned—a respect for our natural world and a commitment to preserving it—came to bear when she and her second husband, the late Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., moved to Wye Plantation on the Wye River. With Mr. Houghton, then Chairman of Steuben Glass and a Director of the Corning Glass Company, Nina was a partner in creating Wye Institute—now part of the renowned Aspen Institute—that brought a new level of educational and intellectual resources to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This is where schoolchildren once came for summer educational enrichment programs. This is where a young Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez took temporary refuge. This is where world leaders gathered to build peace agreements. Even today, Aspen’s Houghton House and Wye River Conference Center offer statesmen and captains of industry a private retreat setting conducive to study and reflection.
Her first association with Maryland’s educational institutions came with her appointment as Trustee of Wye Institute in 1973. In time, she enjoyed further appointments as Trustee of Goucher College (1990 to 1999), board member of the Columbus Center in Baltimore (1993-1997), advisory group member to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (1996-2007), member of the Board of Visitors to Johns Hopkins Medicine (1998-2002) and member of the Board of Visitors of University of Maryland College Park (1997-1999), and Trustee of the Aspen Institute (1991-2005). In 1999 she co-chaired an effort sponsored by the University of Maryland called Agriculture and Natural Resources Research: Seeking Common Ground which led to the formation of the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology. She was a member of the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland (1999-2006). In addition to her service on Washington College’s Board of Visitors and Governors, Nina served on the Advisory Board of the College’s Center for Environment & Society (CES), which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Nina was a truly remarkable lady who did so much good in our community,” notes John Seidel, the CES director. “As a founding member of the CES Advisory Board, she provided much sound advice and moral support during our formative period, she pushed us on our programs, and she was a driver behind getting a sustainability office at Washington College. I know that she cared deeply about the community, the College, and especially our students. She took them to lunch and dinner, invited them into her home, and she talked to them and listened with a sympathetic and wise ear. Beyond all of this, Nina was just a delightful person, with a huge heart. She will be sorely missed.”
In recognition of her contributions to Washington College and the wider community, she was honored with the President’s Medal in 2015. In that citation, Interim President Jay Griswold called her Washington College’s “guardian angel,” a reference to the gifts she would quietly make whenever and wherever she perceived a need—always with an eye toward helping students.
“In so many ways Nina was the embodiment of leadership and grace,” her fellow College Trustee Ann Horner ’80 noted at her passing. “She understood that we, as leaders, have a responsibility to make a true difference in the organizations we choose to serve and to hold them accountable to be the very best they can be—and in the case of Washington College, that was in the education we provide our students. Nina led by example–taking students out to dinner and learning about their studies and their lives, investing her time to understand how the College could truly serve our students well. She loved Washington College, and she cared deeply that the education Washington College provides our students makes a tangible difference in their lives.
Washington College was in the early throes of the COVID-19 crisis when Nina Houghton died. As a tribute to her friend and colleague, Horner pledged a gift of $25,000 to the College’s COVID-19 Response Fund, established to provide aid to the College’s most vulnerable students.
“Nina was an inspiration, not just by her insights and her generosity, but by her genuine desire to make a real difference to our students,” Horner noted. “I just asked myself what Nina would have done.”
Among her survivors are College Trustee Jeffrey H. Horstman ’82 and granddaughter Nielly Horstman ’15.