Induction ceremony for the Order of the Sacred Flame thanks donors for supporting Lees-McRae

Four longtime supporters of Lees-McRae College joined a small but essential group of donors this year. During the November ceremony, Del and Barbara Williamson and Ed and Susan Harden were inducted into the Order of the Sacred Flame, which recognizes donors who leave Lees-McRae a planned gift in their will or estate plan.

The ceremony was held at Robbins Sunset Park at Elk River Club, against a mountainous backdrop. Speakers included Lees-McRae President Lee King, Vice President for Institutional Advancement Edward Roberts, and Major Gifts Officer Sam Stephenson. Also in attendance at the ceremony were Robert Tufts, great-grandson of Lees-McRae founder Rev. Edgar Tufts, and his wife Kimberly, who presented each honoree with a book describing the history of Rev. Tufts and the origins of the Order of the Sacred Flame.

The Order of the Sacred Flame was established in the early 2000s to pay tribute to the foundations of Lees-McRae. Rev. Edgar Tufts was sent to Banner Elk by the Concord Presbytery in 1895 to establish a Presbyterian congregation, and Rev. Tufts quickly fell in love with the area. In 1898, he described his feelings in a poem, the first stanza of which reads: “When ‘twas thy Holy Spirit came into my heart with quick’ning power. And set aglow a Sacred Flame, I cannot tell the day or hour.”

Compelled by that sacred flame to serve the town of Banner Elk, Rev. Tufts began building institutions to benefit the community. He saw a particular need for increased educational opportunities, especially for girls. In 1900, thanks to donations of money, labor, and lumber, he was able to open a boarding school that housed four students and one teacher. That boarding school eventually grew to become the Lees-McRae College of today.

Lees-McRae was founded on donations from interested groups and individuals, and those donations continue to enable the college to achieve its goals.

“There are so many people who can point to Lees-McRae as being the changing point in their lives,” said Stephenson. “They may not have been able to do the things they have done without Lees-McRae.”

Gifts from donors provide funds for scholarships, building construction and upkeep, and employee pay, all of which are essential to keeping the college running. Since Lees-McRae is the largest private employer in Avery County, financial support to the college strengthens the local economy.

Planned gifts offer those who wish to support Lees-McRae and wish to make a donation the opportunity to make the largest possible impact. By leaving a financial gift after their passing, donors are able to give based on the assets they have accumulated over a lifetime.

“The people who give love Lees-McRae, and they want to make as big an impact as they can,” said Stephenson. “Typically, people understand they’re helping students, but they’re also helping faculty and staff, and helping the local community.”

In their will or estate plan, donors can designate how they want their gift to be used or they can leave the gift unrestricted, to be used at the college’s discretion. Past planned gifts include donations that funded the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, the May School of Nursing and Health Sciences, and the New Opportunity School for Women.

Around 60 people have informed Lees-McRae of their intent to leave the school a planned gift. Many already have ties to the college, such as recent honoree Del Williamson, who has served on the Board of Trustees. While it is not a requirement that a donor let Lees-McRae know of their gift, it is appreciated, and gives the college a chance to express their gratitude.

Those interested in leaving a gift for Lees-McRae in their estate plan have a variety of different ways they can do so, such as leaving a charitable bequest through a will, naming Lees-McRae as a beneficiary to a life insurance policy, or establishing a Charitable Remainder Trust. To learn more, contact Sam Stephenson at or 828.898.2534.

“You’ll never be able to know how life changing your gift can be,” said Stephenson. “From 1895, this is the vision Rev. Tufts had. 120 years later, we’re still holding to that vision.”  

By Emily WebbDecember 18, 2020