When I moved to Bostwick 2-A as a freshman some years back, I arrived from Louisville, Ky., when preppy style was the rage. I came bearing lackluster dorm necessities — a dull shower pail comes to mind — but in my suitcases lay a dash of panache that included a Lilly Pulitzer sundress and patchwork pillows made of cheery Lilly Pulitzer fabric with polka-dotted grosgrain ribbons. Not until today did I learn of a heritage connection.
My discovery: Lilly Pulitzer, the designer of preppy pink and green clothes and, indirectly, my dorm pillows, was the great-granddaughter of Jabez A. Bostwick. I never gave a moment’s thought freshman year to the story of Jabez A. Bostwick, my dorm’s namesake. I guess I should have. It turns out he was a co-founder of Standard Oil and a devout Baptist who had no connection to Wake Forest and never visited what is now called the Old Campus or lived to see the new. But he did respond when asked to help increase the tiny $50,000 Wake Forest College endowment after Professor Charles Taylor launched a penny postcard campaign in 1883. Bostwick eventually met with Taylor and gave a firm commitment for a $10,000 gift. And he kept giving, bequeathing $1.6 million to Wake Forest in his will. He died in 1892, the largest contributor to Wake Forest’s endowment, contributing to promote the cause of religion, according to G.W. Paschal’s 1943 “History of Wake Forest College.”
Lilly Pulitzer, as befits the great-granddaughter of a titan of industry in the Gilded Age, had what has been called “a riches to riches story.” She died last year at 81 at her Palm Beach estate. In noting her death, People magazine said, “The bright, big-patterned colors that were her signature dotted country clubs from Bar Harbor to Bel Air, while trendsetters like Jackie Kennedy (Pulitzer’s former classmate at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn.) and E.F. Hutton and Post cereal heiress Dina Merrill were among those who sported themselves in the shapeless shifts that became known as ‘Lillys.’ ”
Those fabrics are back, cycling around again on the fashion wheel just as they did in my day. I see students sporting the prints, and the stationery store in Thruway Center on Stratford Road offers any number of Lillyfied items from note pads to cellphone cases. I’ll never look at them the same, knowing the historical link to a rich Baptist who was bent on helping shore up a little college in the South and inadvertently gave it a splash of color down the line.