Thank you, Mrs Goedeke and all staff for their support in the awarding of this prize.
5 years ago the Herschel Alumnae Union made the decision to launch the Caroline Herschel Award for various reasons, but overwhelmingly for the fact that the Herschel alumnae are amongst some of the most impressive women in South Africa and the world.
The annual award seeks to recognise and celebrate the valued, lasting contributions of Herschel alumna in making a significant difference in a community, industry, arena of life or field of study.
The Caroline Herschel Award is awarded to a living Herschel alumna, nominated by a fellow Herschel alumna who has contributed extraordinarily in such a way as to leave a lasting impact.
Caroline Herschel who died in 1848 at age 98 was the aunt of our Founder Sir John William Herschel, to whom she was very close throughout his life. It is said that her influence on John’s life is a large part of the reason why we are all sitting here today on these beautiful grounds.
She was the first woman to receive full recognition in the field of astronomy, the first-ever woman to receive a salary for services to science (paid by King George III) and together with her brother (our founder’s father), she discovered over 2400 astronomical objects over twenty years. The asteroid 281 Lucretia was named after Caroline’s second name, and the crater C. Herschel on the Moon is named after her.
She was a beautiful soprano singer and left a successful singing career to pursue a career for which she was passionate, in astronomy.
In 1828, at the age of 75, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded Caroline Herschel a gold medal for her monumental works in science. The next woman to win the Gold Medal Award was Vera Rubin in 1996 a full 168 years later. Caroline was additionally made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society 10 years later and she received the same honour from the Royal Irish Academy, and, on her 96th birthday, Caroline was awarded the gold medal of science by the King of Prussia.
Caroline remained modest throughout her remarkable career. She loved literature and art and additionally had eight unpublished novels. She once remarked: “As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.”
She was a truly remarkable woman.
In 2020 the HAU reviewed the Caroline Hershel Award process and voting was opened up to all 4000+ members of the Union. Additionally, we appointed 3 independent judges to make the final selection for the award. Our judges represented the areas of business, education and philanthropy.
In 2021, the Herschel Alumnae Union received 6 nominations for the Caroline Herschel Award. The judges scoring came in very close, and although the final decision was a difficult one, in the end, the overwhelming choice made was Sue Sonnenberg.
When I read about Sue’s journey, life, and career, I felt very inspired and awe-struck by how much she has given of herself to others.
I asked Sue to provide me with a summary of her work which I have summarised here. Inspired by Nelson Mandela‘s release and the 1996 elections, Sue and her husband David left London after the millennium and returned to South Africa to run the family farm.
In 2004, inspired by the need in the area for a private English-medium preparatory school, together with two parents and newly appointed headmaster Mike Aubin, they made the decision to go ahead to start one. Using vacated farm cottages, a community hall we had built years before and three hectares of uncultivated land.
And Wellington Preparatory School was born!
She felt inspired by a sense of purpose and vision she sorely needed at the time and the school opened with twenty-three children despite some parents, who imaginably, were unsure whether the school would survive or live up to its manifesto.
In the early days, they committed to carrying many of the running expenses and were members of the management committee from the start.
With Sue’s background in creative arts, having studied initially at UCT’s Michaelis Art School as well as art therapy in London, for five years she happily filled a voluntary role as art mistress for the Grade 4 to 7‘s.
The early years were challenging, with many fundraising efforts required to develop the facilities that are there today, yet Sue says it was energising setting intentional, seemingly impossible goals and then seeing them come to pass one by one.
The sports field, after-care building, netball and basketball court, impressive swimming pool, and play and climbing equipment, are all slowly but surely becoming a reality, thanks to dedicated efforts by parents, generous friends and donors.
My special focus has always been to attract and encourage donors to support our scholarship programme. From the beginning, one of the cornerstones of the school’s vision was not only being inclusive by reflecting the diversity of the community but providing scholarships for disadvantaged children.
Sue had always hoped that one day a senior school might be added but it had seemed an unlikely dream due to the costs involved.
There have been a large number of scholarships offered, however, the last five years or so has seen the demand for places in the region’s top schools outstrip supply. This was especially concerning given that their graduating scholarship students might not be able to fulfil their excellent academic advantage after graduating from the Wellington primary school.
Other families too, might have begun to fear sending their children to Wellington Prep, if anxious about gaining assured places in local senior schools. So without second thoughts, the senior college was created, with new classrooms built to accommodate the five senior grades.
A seemingly impossible dream had come true.
Over the seventeen years of its existence, the school has earned an excellent reputation. Thanks to the high quality of the tuition, excellent leadership, and commitment to small classes that enable the best in every child, overall, the scholars punch above their weight both academically as well as in sports and the arts.
Sue hopes to have many years left to continue supporting the school and helping to ensure its sustainability. In the meantime, she has huge pleasure seeing the school’s impact on young lives and on the local community.
The photo gallery on the school’s website gives an inkling of the spirit that has been captured in a diverse, vibrant, three hundred-strong, happy school.
Thank you Sue for all you have done and continue to do and for being such a phenomenal Herschelian. We congratulate you on your well-deserved Caroline Herschel Award.