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Remembering Mrs. Mary “Mimi” Ryan Cecil

Written By Judy Ross

Posted 11/20/17

Updated 04/12/24

Estate History

Mary “Mimi” Ryan Cecil died on Friday, November 17, 2017 in Asheville, NC. Mrs. Cecil and her late husband, William A.V. Cecil, were active members of the Asheville, NC community as owners of the historic estate, Biltmore.

Born Mary Lee Ryan on December 11, 1931, she 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 B.A. in English from Vassar College in 1953. Notably, she 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 was a partner in the Wall Street firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft.

William A.V. Cecil and Mary
Mimi and William A.V. Cecil at the reception following their wedding.

In 1957, she married William A.V. Cecil at St. Vincent Ferrer’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City. In 1960, the Cecils moved to Asheville, NC to raise their family and to oversee the management and preservation of Biltmore, which was created by his grandfather George W. Vanderbilt. 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, Mrs. Mary Cecil became a legend in her own right within the community. Known for her relaxed and approachable manner, she was a familiar figure in the world of non-profit leadership, and devoted her life to making a difference in the areas of education, social inequities, the environment, and the arts.

She was a trustee and served 14 years as Chair for North Carolina Environmental Defense. In 1995, in recognition of her devotion and support of the organization, the Board of Trustees and Staff elected her Chair Emeritus, expressing their deep and lasting appreciation, respect, and love for her dedication to the welfare of the organization and her lifelong efforts to insure the overall betterment of North Carolina.

Mrs. Mary Cecil was a founding board member of the Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Smokies, and was recognized for 20 years of stewardship by the National Park Service for her work with Friends of the Smokies. She also served on the Board for the North Carolina Zoological Society.

In 2007, The French Broad River Garden Club and The Garden Club of America presented the Zone Conservation Award to Mrs. Cecil for her inspiring dedication to the conservation of our environment, natural resources, and mountain heritage.

She served as Chairman of the Community Foundation of North Carolina board for a decade, and was Chair of the Warren Wilson College Board of Trustees from 1998–2005.

Mrs. Mary 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 long-time member of The Biltmore Company’s Board of Directors.

Mrs. Cecil in South Georgia, Antarctica, 2004.

Mrs. Cecil was devoted to her family, sharing her love of travel, especially with her five grandchildren. As each grandchild reached the age of ten, they were able to pick a travel experience to share with her, creating a memorable tradition that spanned generations.

In the book Lady on the Hill, Mr. Cecil (1928–2017) recognized Mimi Cecil for her integral part in Biltmore’s success story 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.

Mrs. 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 and son-in-law George “Chuck” Pickering II, brother John J. Ryan III, and sister-in-law Jacqueline Ryan; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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What was George Vanderbilt’s vision for Biltmore? How does the legacy live on today?