Alumna Has Devoted Her Life to Service

Florence Overley Ridderhof ’50 learned two lessons early on that have guided a lifetime of serving her community and the world.

Growing up in a house on Cornell Street in Fredericksburg, she learned from her mother that it wasn’t enough to talk about a need; you had to try to find a solution. And on the Mary Washington campus in the late 1940s, her psychology professors taught her not to judge or generalize about people.

Mary Washington helped shape Florence Ridderhof’s commitment to serving her community and beyond. (The Free Lance-Star )

Those principles, instilled in Fredericksburg, helped Ridderhof bring about a meaningful change in the region’s attitudes about domestic violence.

In the 1970s, when a local elected leader publicly stated that what a man did in his home was his business, Ridderhof and a group of like-minded women helped open the area’s first domestic violence shelter – and ultimately changed a community’s perspective. Today, Empowerhouse operates a 10,000-square-foot facility serving scores of women and children across five Fredericksburg-area localities.

Ridderhof considers that her greatest achievement besides raising a family. Although, sadly, a son passed away in February, Ridderhof takes joy in her three other children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Her family is far from her only accomplishment. Her advocacy and activism span the globe, from bringing low-cost mental health services to Fredericksburg and providing hot meals to the area’s homeless to providing disaster relief and performing missions to South Dakota, Haiti, and Guatemala.

And at 90, she’s not done yet. At least once a week, she volunteers at Micah Hospitality Center for the homeless, a place that provides haircuts, bag lunches, hot showers, and help accessing community services. She also was among lay leaders from the region’s faith community that helped dream it up.

Ridderhof’s parents, an economic analyst and a homemaker, set a solid example for their daughter. Her father insisted she take every math class offered in school, even if she was the only female. Her mother served her church community and convened a meeting on affordable housing – in the 1940s.

Every year, the family attended May Day concerts at the Mary Washington amphitheater, now renamed the Heslep Amphitheatre. They strolled the campus and chatted with college girls who passed on their way to classes.

“It was assumed I would go to college, even though I was a girl. Many of my friends went to finishing school. Their families believed there was no need for more education,” she said.

She majored in psychology – Eileen Dodd was a professor-turned-mentor who recommended Ridderhof for her first job giving psychological tests to new employees at a local company. But Ridderhof found her passion in Mary Washington’s dance program studying under Claudia Moore Read.

That passion – and her connection to the college that helped form her – continues today. Ridderhof helped found UMW Friends of the Dance that since 1993 has awarded more than $42,000 in scholarships. The scholarships are named in honor of Read and Sonja Dragomanovic Haydar, another beloved dance teacher. A third, endowed in 2017, is named in honor of Vicky Nichols Wilder ’80 and Ridderhof herself, for the women’s enduring dedication to UMW dance.

She still has not stopped dancing. She practices every Sunday as a member of Sacred Dance Ensemble, an ecumenical ministry that performs at nursing homes and community events.

She still is a part of the UMW community, attending the William B. Crawley Great Lives Lecture Series and Philharmonic Orchestra performances. A practicing artist, Ridderhof also worked with Professor of Art Carole Garmon, students, alumni, and other local artists on a large-scale paper sculpture called Thuban. Finished in 2018, it took two years to complete.

Ridderhof cherishes smaller connections, too. When she is working in her yard on Mortimer Avenue, she enjoys seeing college students pass – on their way to and from a campus where their own life lessons are taking shape.

 – Kristin Davis

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