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Big changes coming to Westminster Abbey, with help from USC alumna

Valerie Humphrey heads $30 million development for the Gothic church and storied burial place of royals, statesmen and scientists

Valerie Humphrey at Westminster Abbey
Valerie Humphrey is creating a new exhibition space for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. (Photo/Courtesy of Westminster Abbey)

When it comes to raising $30 million to finance the first structural addition to London’s Westminster Abbey in 271 years, the best person for the job is a Trojan.

Valerie Humphrey ’82 is the director of development for Westminster Abbey, the sacred space of every coronation since William the Conqueror in 1066, and the burial place of kings and queens, statesmen, scientists, warriors, writers and musicians. It has been the venue for 16 royal weddings, including the most recent uniting Prince William and Catherine Middleton, Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Since starting at the Abbey eight years ago, Humphrey has led fundraising efforts on several projects aimed at improving the visitor experience of one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. Her current focus is creating a new exhibition space for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries — in an area of the Abbey which has never before had public access and has not been used for anything but storage since its creation in the Middle Ages. The challenge, however, would be access to the area.

“The most amazing part of the project is that we’ll be building a new tower, which is the first physical addition to the Abbey since its main towers were completed in 1745,” Humphrey said. “It’s about once in 10 generations that something like this takes place, and we’re the generation that’s actually doing it.”

The Galleries won’t open until 2018, but in December, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (that’s Prince Charles to us) set the foundation stone in a ceremony to commence construction.

What is a Royal Peculiar?

Leading development efforts for the Abbey entails close work with domestic and international donors. There is even an American Fund for Westminster Abbey that has generated more than $3 million. But partly because of the Abbey’s status as a “Royal Peculiar” (neither a cathedral nor a parish church, it is run by a dean and subject only to the sovereign), Humphrey also comes into contact on occasion with the royal family. She attended the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as a guest, but had some insights into the preparation of the Abbey for the grand ceremony.

About those living trees installed for the service: “The Abbey isn’t the largest cathedral, but we have the highest ceiling,” she said. “The trees were brought in on their sides and installed, bringing down the ceiling wonderfully.”

The detail people didn’t appreciate? There were Lily of the Valley — a sweetly scented, highly poisonous flowering plant — around the trees’ bases. “The Abbey was scented,” she said.

To London and back

How does a kid from Southern California end up in London, in a role steeped in tradition and protocol?

Humphrey points to the opportunity for overseas travel that USC offered her. And the rest, as they say …

Although her father wanted Humphrey to join the family business, she had her sights set abroad from the start, beginning with living in the international dorm her freshman year.

USC makes you think globally. And I have always loved things international.

Valerie Humphrey

“USC makes you think globally,” she said. “And I have always loved things international. Always studied languages. I first went to London at 17. I wanted to live abroad. It was just too exciting.”

In her last year at USC, she did an internship with the Department of Commerce in Los Angeles in its International Trade Administration.

Thanks to that job, she left for a yearlong internship at the American Embassy in Paris after graduation. Trojan connections made there led to work at Rockwell International in Orange County upon her return to the United States, which eventually sent her to London because of her international experience.

While on a short-term assignment in London in 1989, she met her English future husband and stayed.

Since then, her career includes a portfolio of international experiences, including fundraising for the World Wildlife Foundation and the National Trust in England, and three years in Italy as director of communications and development for Italy’s largest heritage organization.

Humphrey pointed out that she’s now lived more of her life abroad than in the states. But she retains her American enthusiasm.

“We are naturally more open and enthusiastic about things, in particular, things that are old,” she said. “When you learn that the Abbey has stood, in some form, from the year 960 — as an American you can’t even get your head around that. My colleagues have come to allow me my ‘Holy Cow!’ moments.”

Trojan homecoming

Humphrey returned to USC for the first time in 10 years in 2015 to attend the Homecoming game and reunite with the Trojan Marching Band, in which she played the mellophone. “I’ve never had more fun,” she said.

She would tell young Trojans to take chances.

“Go where life takes you and don’t hold so fast to a prescribed path.” And above all, she said, do what you love.

“Fundraising only works if you are fundraising for something you’re passionate about. But to be effective in development, you also need to understand the people and the business around it,” she said. “Without the strong business background and the confidence that USC gave to me, I would not be here.”

Where does one go after Westminster Abbey?

“I’ve never planned for the next job, and every time the next job has become even more interesting,” she said.

What’s next? “I can hardly wait to find out.”

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