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Elizabeth Sewall, school leader refused to mope


During treatment for her second round of cancer, Elizabeth Sewall volunteered to help advance the research of her doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute by undergoing a procedure to provide tissue for medical research.

Known for her patience in any challenging situation and her concern for others, Mrs. Sewall hoped her contribution would help physicians improve care for the next generation of women diagnosed with breast cancer, and maybe enable some to avoid the illness altogether.

"When she believed in something, she made it happen," said her husband, Gordon. "She lived life to the fullest each and every day to the very end."


Paying close attention to all parts of her illness, including how it was discussed, Mrs. Sewall did not talk about cancer as a battle to be won or lost.

"She felt that the war metaphor positioned all the patients who died from their disease as losers and those living with their disease as winners," her husband wrote in an e-mail. "She often said, 'None of us can know how long we have to live and a bad diagnosis simply means that the length of our lives is a little less open-ended.' "

Mrs. Sewall, who worked as a philanthropist and leader in fund-raising at schools along the East Coast, died of metastatic breast cancer Sept. 1 in her Milton home. She was 48 and had lived in Milton for 17 years.

In 2002, she recovered from her first cancer diagnosis. To celebrate her fifth year of being cancer-free, she walked in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in 2007.

"In her view her glass was not just half-full, it was overflowing," said Lucy Mathews Heegaard of Minneapolis, a friend of 30 years. "She always saw the hopeful part, the little window of light."

Recently, when a friend asked if she was afraid to die, Mrs. Sewall simply said: "Don't mope."


"She was who she was for the entirety of her life, a person with such integrity, such honesty," said Mathews Heegaard.

Elizabeth Alling was born in Blairstown, N.J., and spent her childhood in Charlottesville, Va., and Dayton, Ohio. In 1982, she graduated from the Miami Valley School in Dayton.

She graduated from Yale University in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in history. Afterward, she worked in an alumni affairs office at Yale for a year before starting a job at Riverdale Country School near Bronx, N.Y., as an assistant director of development.

"Her priorities were as a mother, wife, and family member, but she carried a heavy load of community responsibilities," her husband said. "Through it all, on top of that, she emerged as a real powerful leader within schools."

In 1990, Mrs. Sewall graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a master's degree.

She continued her work in the education field as associate director of development at Lawrence Academy in Groton, where she met Gordon Sewall. They married in 1991.

Mrs. Sewall also worked as the associate director of development at the Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn., before she settled in Milton with her husband.

While raising her sons, Scott and Duncan, she worked out of her home as a consultant for Browning Associates of New Jersey for six years. Through that work, she helped several educational institutions hire administrators and maximize fund-raising efforts.


"She put people at ease," her husband said. "She was a fiercely honest, direct person, but never insensitive. … She never flinched with the need to be absolutely honest with people."

For the past five years, Mrs. Sewall worked as the director of institutional advancement at the Fessenden School in Newton. During her time there, she helped raise more than $25 million for the school.

"She was successful in that role largely because she cared about the needs and interests, about the donors and the people," her husband said. "She cared more about that than the gift."

In addition to her work in the education field and philanthropy, Mrs. Sewall managed volunteer efforts at Milton Academy, including fund-raising and directing the school's bicentennial celebration.

"She was a gifted listener," her husband said. "She helped several of these institutions become stronger as a result."

Mrs. Sewall began participating in triathlons while in her 40s, and in June competed in the Cohasset Triathlon, just three months before she died.

At the end of summer she liked to spend time on Martha's Vineyard, and she also enjoyed needlepoint and playing tennis.

Mrs. Sewall's caring presence allowed her to have "enormous gratitude" for her life, family, and friends, and she wanted people to know how grateful she was for their friendship, Mathews Heegaard said.

For Mrs. Sewall, "life was never a burden," her husband said. "She was very proud of what she accomplished."

In addition to her husband and two sons, all of Milton, Mrs. Sewall leaves her mother, Cynthia Alling of Charlottesville, Va.; and a brother, Greg of Manila.


A service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday in St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Milton.

While she was ill, Mrs. Sewall made sure her friends knew she was available for late-night conversations, when she might offer advice and inspiration.

"She always had a sense of purpose with what she did. She didn't take on something else unless it really had meaning to her," said M.E. Malone of Boston, a friend of more than 15 years. "If she was going to spend time with someone, she would invest in them."

Michele Richinick can be reached at mrichinick@gmail.com.