ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Mary “Mimi” Ryan Cecil, owner of the Biltmore Company in Asheville, N.C. died Friday, according to a release from the company.
Cecil died in her Asheville home at the age of 85. She and her late husband William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil were active in the Asheville community.
“My mother had a significant influence on every member of our family and on many local, regional and national organizations,” said Bill Cecil Jr., Mimi Cecil’s son and the CEO of The Biltmore Company. “She spent much of her life working to make a difference in the areas of education, social inequities, the environment, and the arts. Her leadership and determination to initiate change through hard work set the example for all of us. She will be deeply missed.”
Born Mary Lee Ryan on Dec. 11, 1931, Cecil was the daughter of textile manufacturer John J. Ryan Jr., and granddaughter of the prominent New York banker, lawyer and builder James T. Lee.
She graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from Vassar College in 1953 and was in the first class of female graduates from the University of Michigan Law School. She was elected to the Law Review in 1956 and became a partner at the Wall Street firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft.
In 1957, she married William A.V. Cecil at St. Vincent Ferrer’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City.
In 1960, she and her husband moved to Asheville to raise their family and to oversee the management and preservation of Biltmore, which was created by his grandfather. George W. Vanderbilt III. Upon their return, Biltmore was transformed into a privately owned, profitable working estate that was named a National Historic Landmark in 1963.
While supporting her family’s endeavors at Biltmore, Cecil became an influential leader within the community and region and a familiar figure in the world of nonprofit leadership.
“My mother’s contributions to our family and this community are beyond measure,” said Dini Pickering, Mimi Cecil’s daughter and president of the Family Office and chair of the Biltmore's board of directors. “She kept our family connected, both to each other and to causes bigger than ourselves. Her energy for giving was endless and she has inspired all of us to follow in her footsteps. We will proudly carry on that legacy.”
Cecil was a trustee and served 14 years as chair of the North Carolina Environmental Defense Fund. She was a founding board member of The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina and Friends of the Smokies, and was recognized for 20 years of stewardship by the National Park Service.
She also served on the board for the North Carolina Zoological Society. She received the Zone Conservation Award from The Garden Club of America and French Broad River Garden Club for her dedication to conservation of the environment, natural resources and mountain heritage.
She served as chair of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina board for a decade, and chair of the Warren Wilson College Board of Trustees 1998–2005.
Cecil was a supporter of the Asheville Symphony and Guild, the Asheville Art Museum, the Health Adventure, the United Way and the National Forest Foundation. She was also active with the Buncombe County Board of Education, Hospitality House, John C. Campbell Folk School and the National Parks Conservation Association.
She volunteered with the Mission Health System for 20 years and was a longtime member of The Biltmore Company’s board of directors.
In the book "Lady on the Hill," William A.V. Cecil recognized his wife for her integral part in Biltmore’s success and in supporting those efforts for more than 45 years.
“She has been a wonderful wife and mother and has offered her considerable gifts, skills and abilities to our community, our mountains and our country. I am profoundly in her debt,” he stated.
Cecil is survived by her son, William A.V. "Bill" Cecil Jr., and daughter-in-law Virginia "Ginger" Cecil; her daughter, Diana "Dini" Cecil Pickering, son-in-law George "Chuck" Pickering II, brother John J. Ryan III and sister-in-law Jacqueline Ryan; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to support scholarships for students at Warren Wilson College. Checks may be made to Warren Wilson College with "WWC Fund Scholarships" in the "for" line and sent to Warren Wilson College Advancement; PO Box 9000; CPO 6376; Asheville, NC 28815.
Her funeral will be held at 10 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 27, at the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village, followed by a private family burial.
A reception will follow from 1-4 p.m. at Lioncrest on Biltmore Estate.
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