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Arts supporter Alice Beckwith dies at 83: 'A magical woman with a magical smile'

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of August 21, 2014)
Photo credit: Arts supporter Alice Beckwith

Radiant as the sunshine she came to Vero to enjoy, with energy seemingly as boundless, Alice Snodgrass Beckwith was an unforgettable presence at Vero’s cultural institutions. With a classic blond pageboy, a brilliant smile and intellect to match, she turned heads into her 80s as she lent tireless support to sculpture parks and botanical gardens, public theaters and private schools.

Alice Beckwith, widow of James Beckwith, to whom she was married 56 years, was the mother of three children including two who live in Vero. Calmly, in the days before her death, she informed her kids that she was ready to be with Jim again. She died at home Aug. 2 at age 83.

“She just sort of ran out of gas and said, OK, time to be with Daddy,” said daughter Kate Beckwith Woody.

That her sunny outlook would include a realm beyond this earth would not surprise those who knew her. She enjoyed long conversations with Rev. Bob Baggott, her minister at Community Church. She went to concerts and plays at every opportunity including a chamber music concert at the Vero Beach Museum of Art in late April.

“She was an absolutely amazing woman, a magical woman with a magical smile,” said Lucinda Gedeon, the museum’s executive director, who became good friends with Beckwith, in part because of her near-constant presence at the museum.

Ten days before her death, she was visiting the museum with her grandkids – in all, she had seven granddaughters. It was through them that the Beckwiths became involved in the island’s St. Edward’s School, signing on to sponsor deserving students there, just as they had helped other children with scholarships in Pennsylvania, their home prior to retirement.

“She was very, very upbeat,” said Kate Gill, a family friend from Pittsburgh and director of development at Riverside Theatre. “She was very kind, very curious, very generous. She was just indefatigable. I respected the heck out of her.”

Gill’s parents had bought a home in John’s Island just prior to the Beckwiths’ arrival. In Pittsburgh, Gill’s family and the Beckwiths were members of the same country club, and they frequently took vacations together.

As for the theater, Alice Beckwith particularly enjoyed the musicals of the Main Stage, though she and her husband also attended the often more serious plays on the Waxlax stage.

“First of all, she was elegant,” said Lucinda Gedeon, asked to describe Alice. “She was elegant in her speech, in her dress, in her décor. She had extraordinary taste.”

“She was very engaging and enthusiastic and happy and inquisitive and energetic,” said Gill. “She was good social form. You definitely wanted them to be at your table.”

Gedeon called the Beckwiths “amazing philanthropists,” supporting art museums in Pennsylvania and in Vero. And she pointed out that Alice Beckwith was a serious collector of art.  

“She was absolutely one of the museum’s most loyal committee members, advocates and patrons,” said Gedeon. “She completed her first six-year term on the board and was about to begin the fourth year of her second term.”

The Beckwiths’ support for the museum included the establishment of the Alice and Jim Beckwith Sculpture Park in 2007, expanded in 2011. Long before then, Alice had seen the museum’s potential. Soon after the couple’s arrival in 1990, they joined what was then the Center for the Arts in 1994, eventually increasing their financial commitment to the level of Chairman’s Club. In 2003, they became one of the first members of the Athena Society, and Alice came on the board of the museum in 2005.

She was also a supporter of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Westmoreland Museum in western Pennsylvania.

“What’s particularly wonderful is that they supported organizations like the museum and the theater before they were even worthy of support,” said Gill, who said the Beckwiths’ giving predates Riverside’s database, created in 1996. They gave at the highest level, and helped fund the theater’s massive renovation in the mid-2000s.

“It’s one thing to come into a community and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a great organization and I want to be a part of it,’ as opposed to saying, ‘That really has possibilities,’“ said Gill. “They had the vision, they saw the future and they were committed to supporting all arts organizations in their new community.”

The couple fell in love with Vero “as soon as they crossed the bridge” in 1990, their daughter Kate said.

At the same time that they joined the museum of art, they joined the effort to restore McKee Botanical Garden, even before its purchase in 1995. “They were an integral part of the acquisition and restoration of the gardens,” said Christine Hobart, McKee’s executive director. “Both she and Jim left an indelible impact on our community.”

Alice Beckwith kept up her active social life even after her beloved Jim’s death, and she chose to keep private a chronic condition that only got the better of her in her last days. “She never let it get in her way,” says Gill.

She was an avid player of golf, and a member of the U.S. Senior Women’s Golf Association. She also played bridge, joining her friends for a game two weeks before she died.

“She had that classic good look, she had that hairdo forever. She was athletic, she was fit. She was everything wonderful one might want to be,” recalled Gill.

Until making Vero their year-round home, the Beckwiths lived outside of Pittsburgh. Jim was Alice’s date at her senior prom at the Ellis School, another of her lifelong causes. They married while he was a student at Yale and she attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University.

When Jim joined the Army, she went with him to Fort Sill in Oklahoma and then Fort Benning in Georgia, where their first child was born. Jim and his brother later took over the family business, Beckwith Machinery, founded in 1909 by his grandfather and one of the largest distributors of Caterpillar equipment when it sold in 2005.

Jim and Alice eventually moved their family into his grandparents’ 1920s-era cabin in the tiny town of Ligonier, built on wooded acres with a stream. They expanded that home 20 years ago and surrounded it with spectacular gardens, from which Alice gathered flowers for her renowned arrangements. A memorial service will be held there Sept. 11.

“She told us she was ready and it made it a little less hard,” said daughter Kate. “We knew this wasn’t a shock to her. She just wanted to go play golf with Jim in heaven, and probably have a martini afterwards.”