A Passionate Conservationist, Philanthropist, Equestrian, and Steward of Education
Story by Kaitlin Hill
Photos provided by The Bryant Family
“Adventurous, tenacious, funny, determined … she was a force,” Mason Bryant Howard shares about her grandmother, Maggie. Magalen “Maggie” Ohrstrom Bryant passed away peacefully on June 28th in her Middleburg home, Locust Hill Farm. Bryant’s 92 years were a patchwork of passions that she pursued to the fullest, leaving her unmistakable mark on the equestrian, conservation, education, and philanthropic communities. A mainstay in her beloved Middleburg and beyond, Bryant’s long list of accomplishments speaks to her undefeatable drive, unmatched enthusiasm, and many talents. But perhaps her most admirable quality and her greatest source of enjoyment was her capacity for connecting people and her compassion for all who crossed her path.
Of her many passions, Bryant is certainly a name brand in the equestrian world for her many successful endeavors, in the U.S. and France, on and off the track. She was an adept horsewoman and a keen owner and breeder. Of note, she won the Cheval d’Or in 2003, was inducted into the Virginia Steeplechase Association Hall of Fame in 2014, and in 2015 she was the first American owner to win the Group 1 Steeplechase de Paris. It was a race she would win the two following years as well. In France, her presence was backed by such force she was even given a title, La Grande Dame au Chapeau Rouge (The Great Lady in the Red Hat).
Though her love of horse sports often took her to France, Bryant’s travels took her well beyond the bounds of Europe. “She loved traveling the world,” Howard remembers. “She really was a globetrotter. She loved learning about different cultures and supporting those local communities.”
“She had a sense of adventure and generosity with no boundaries,” Bryant’s daughter KC Graham adds. Bryant’s support for the people and communities of far-flung places highlights her philanthropic nature and lifelong role as a conservationist.
Of the many places she traveled, Africa held a special place in her heart. After her first visit to the continent in the early ‘60s, she was hooked, commenting that Africa felt like home. Her love of elephants inspired her to finance an elephant relocation project, translocating elephant families from Botswana to Angola. Her love of wildlife and wildlands led to friendships and working relationships with Ian Player, a South African conservationist and co-founder of the WILD Foundation, and Vance Martin, the foundation’s president.
Of her conservationist work, Martin says, “I can say unequivocally there has been no one like her. Her commitment to land, to wildlife, to nature, was really unparalleled. And just as important was the style in which she did it. She was always generous, enthusiastic, humble, and absolutely unique.”
Bryant served on the board of directors for the WILD Foundation, and closer to home, she was the chair of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a board member of the National Wildlife Federation, and a founding director of the Global Environment and Technology Foundation. She was recognized by the Land Trust of Virginia as Virginia’s Conservationist of the Year in 2011 and donated 12,000 acres of land in Mississippi to the Tara Wildlife Foundation.
But more than titles, brass-plated plaques, and board meetings, Bryant was notorious for taking risks in the name of what she loved and not afraid to get her hands dirty out in the field. “She never saw a risk she was not willing to take if she felt strongly about it,” Martin explains. For example, he remembers a conservationist trip to Madagascar where Bryant was determined to be part of the action.
“We were in Madagascar looking for a particular lemur, and we had to go off-trail,” he says. “I said, ‘Maggie, you shouldn’t do this.’ She said, ‘That’s nonsense.’ And she just started on. Well, she fell and rolled down the hill. But when she got herself upright, she just started laughing. She never said to me, not once, ‘I can’t do this.’ It was always, ‘We have lots to do.’”
Bryant brought that same determination to her work with young people, locally and abroad. “She was very passionate about education and empowering youth … She founded projects in Africa, she founded a Mississippi Youth Camp, she supported Shenandoah University and its Global Citizen Project,” Howard notes. “She was always very dedicated to young people.” In South Africa, she supported “EduPeg,” supporting primary school students and teachers, and in Costa Rica, she made regular visits to EARTH University and its natural-resources-based entrepreneurship program. At home in Middleburg, she was an early and major player for the A Place to Be program. “She was well-known for ‘planting seed corn,’ as people say, helping people get off the ground and pursue their passions,” Howard says.
But perhaps Bryant’s greatest skill and most enjoyed pastime was networking. “Almost everywhere she went in the world, when she came back, she would have a host of new friends…” Graham explains.
And Howard says, “She was famous for throwing all sorts of people in her living room, just to see what relationships struck up. And you could be from any walk of life.”
“If you ever needed anything, she had the best little black book with numbers from all over the world,” longtime friend John Coles shares. “She always knew someone she could send you to. And, she was always glad to see you. She was always happy to see everyone. Right up to her dying days she was sharp. She just loved people. She loved her friends.”
While her accomplishments speak for themselves, the way she managed to achieve all that she did highlights her treatment of those who came into her orbit. She was the rare combination of absolutely certain of herself yet still incredibly kind to others. “Some people accrue a certain amount of enemies along the way because that is the cost of doing business,” Martin notes. “Maggie was not like that. She was always clear about how she felt and what she wanted to do … but I don’t know a single person that would have dropped on the other side of the list and not liked Maggie Bryant. And that’s unique. She had her own way, and that way was never to hurt anyone. Ever.”
Bryant lived her life to the fullest and in style, with an “unlimited amount of optimism and enthusiasm,” and nails painted in strawberry margarita red as part of her charm, according to Howard. Though she undoubtedly leaves an immeasurable void in the communities she loved and that loved her, Bryant’s legacy of accomplishment, charity, and most of all, kindness live on in those who knew her and those who benefited from her many projects in Middleburg and around the world. ML