July 6, 2011—When Mary Lou Wingerter Couch retired as New College Foundation’s vice president for donor relations on June 30, 2011, the College bid a fond farewell to one of its longest-tenured and most beloved employees. Wingerter Couch spent her 46 years at New College successfully organizing fundraising events, connecting new folks in town with the College and raising funds. She will be remembered for her unflagging energy, her incredible community connections and an ageless style that reflected a young-at-heart attitude.
“I go way back to when the College started,” recalls Wingerter Couch. “I remember when we all had lunch together in College Hall, the professors, the students, the staff, everyone. The people I’ve met have been amazing.”
In organizing events and cultivating donors, she made friends with early supporters like Jane Bancroft Cook, the Pritzker family and the first head of admissions, Millie Ellis, as well as notable author John MacDonald, General Alexander Haig and Chief Justice Warren Burger.
“I’ve worn many hats and did many things, even organizing memorial services for some of our donors,” says Wingerter Couch. “I got to know all the people in town, and how to get things done. I have fond memories of it all.”
Mary Lou Wingerter arrived in Sarasota in 1965 from New Jersey, knowing virtually no one and determined to bring up her two young daughters with love and stability. Her parents had a winter home here, and she had planned to hang out in Sarasota for a few months until she could finalize her divorce and catch her breath. But she did much more than that — she took a big gulp of Gulf air and knew it was the place she wanted to be. Luckily for New College, fortune intervened to keep her here.
“A friend of my mom’s got me a part-time job with the New College Library Association, and that began my 46-year association with this amazing campus,” says Wingerter Couch. “I coordinated events and ran the office, made lots of friends and put down roots in this wonderful community. When the New College Foundation was established in 1976, I moved over to that location and started doing events.”
Wingerter Couch’s charmed events included dinner auctions, formatted themed galas, book parties, luncheons and fashion shows, a clambake on the beach, lecture series, holiday parties and the Big Band Bash. Her goal was always twofold: to raise both funds and friends for New College. Over the past three years, she was responsible for major gifts fundraising. Wingerter Couch worked closely with her colleagues at the New College Foundation to raise planned and annual gifts and bring prospective donors to the College to see the campus and meet with administration and faculty.
One of the things she rarely talked about is that she’s a polio survivor.
“I contracted polio when I was 19 and engaged to be married,” shares Wingerter Couch. “I spent six months in a hospital, then underwent experimental water therapy. Finally, I improved to the point where I could walk without a brace or crutches.” She asserts that she’s never let this disability bother her; in fact she’s never thought that she had a disability. “It’s just been a fact of my adult life that I’ve dealt with,” she says. “I was one of the last polio cases before the vaccine was developed.”
Five years ago, she married her longtime sweetheart, David Couch, a businessman from Vermont. They live in a small Florida ranch in an old neighborhood near the Bay, which she loves. “My two girls were raised here,” she notes, “but now it’s just David and me, our dog and cat.” Daughter Julie Miller lives near Albany, works for United Airlines and is a nutritional consultant. Daughter Sally Petri lives in Vero Beach, where she is a dental hygienist and raises horses. They have given her four grandchildren.
Wingerter Couch describes herself as someone with “spunk,” and that seems to hit the mark.
“I can’t believe that I’m 77 years old,” she says with a sparkle. (Neither can anyone else.) “I still have lots of energy, but now it’s time to smell the roses and do things that I enjoy for myself — gardening, creative cooking, bridge, home entertaining, golf, playing the piano, knitting, rug hooking and nice long lunches with friends.” She’s already lined up a volunteer slot to work at the Episcopal Consignment Shop once a week.
In honor of her years of dedicated service, Mary Lou Wingerter was made an honorary alumna by the New College Alumnae/i Association at the College’s Commencement ceremony in May 2011.
It’s a fitting tribute for a dynamo who has given her heart and soul to put New College on the map.