It is with great sadness that the trustees of the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art announce the death of Phyllis Mills Wyeth on Jan. 14. Mrs. Wyeth was an early and major supporter of the fledgling Tri-County Conservancy, which became the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, and was a founding member of its Board. In addition to her work with the Brandywine she was a noted philanthropist, conservationist, environmentalist, arts supporter, accomplished horsewoman and a staunch advocate for the rights of the handicapped and disabled.
Born in New York City on Nov. 13, 1940, Phyllis Mills Wyeth was the daughter of the late James and Alice du Pont Mills. Wyeth grew up outside of Middleburg, Va., on Burnt Mill Farm — adjacent to Hickory Tree Farm, a renowned Thoroughbred breeding, training and racing facility founded by her parents. The Mills’ family raised, owned and raced several top stakes winners such as “Devil's Bag,” “Believe It” and “Gone West.” Growing up with a love for horses and steeplechase events, Wyeth competed in several local point-to-point races as a teenager. While a life-altering auto accident left her disabled at age 20, Wyeth’s spirit remained ever determined, steadfast and positive throughout her entire life. Her passion for horses and racing continued, with Wyeth becoming a well-known and respected carriage driver and an accomplished Thoroughbred horse breeder and owner. On her racing stable in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Wyeth bred the famed horse Union Rags—a fourth-generation descendant of her family's breeding program. Union Rags would later become Wyeth’s “dream come true” champion horse and winner of the Belmont Stakes in 2012.
After graduating from the Ethel Walker School, Wyeth majored in political science at Finch College and later attended the Columbia School of Social Work. She worked for then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, and later in the White House with President Kennedy’s special assistant. In 1968 she married artist Jamie Wyeth of Chadds Ford, son of Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N. C. Wyeth. The couple lived on their beautiful 240-acre Point Lookout Farm—purchased by Phyllis Wyeth’s great grandfather in 1903—on the Pennsylvania-Delaware border. During the summer months, the couple resided at their home on Southern Island in Maine. Nearby in Port Clyde, Maine, Mrs. Wyeth founded the Herring Gut Learning Center in 1999. Inspired by her mother, Alice du Pont Mills, who was also an environmental activist and lifelong philanthropist, Wyeth led her life with a dedication to the environment and giving back to her community. Wyeth created Herring Gut Learning Center with the goal of teaching local children about aquaculture and marine conservation and to help preserve Maine’s traditional fishing communities. Wyeth was later awarded the NOAA Fisheries Environmental Hero award in 2002 for her efforts with the organization. Wyeth and her husband, Jamie, were also one of the first to grant a conservation easement to the Brandywine Conservancy in 1969, preserving 44.5 acres of their land along the west bank of the Brandywine River, permanently protecting it from development.
Wyeth had an extraordinary career in public service, both advocating for the arts and for the rights of the disabled. She worked as a teacher for the Terry Children's Psychiatric Center in Wilmington, Delaware, and spent many years in Washington, D.C., working as a consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts, as vice chairperson of the National Committee on Arts for the Handicapped (now known as VSA, the international organization on arts and disability), and assisting with the National Very Special Arts Festival. She also served on multiple boards, including the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, the H.J. Heinz Company Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Mary Chichester duPont Foundation, the National Resources Defense Council, and as Trustee Emeritus of the Herring Gut Learning Center. She was appointed to the National Endowment for the Arts and Handicapped Advisory Task Force to the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals and served on the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped.
Funeral services will be private. In the coming weeks the Brandywine River Museum of Art will host a selection of paintings of Phyllis Wyeth by her husband, Jamie, as a special tribute exhibition. Additional details will be released soon.