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Daphne Maxwell Reid

Published date: October 1, 2012

Daphene Maxwell Reid

Get to know Daphne Maxwell Reid

Written by Lia Tremblay

Viewers of Virginia State University’s TV news magazine, “VSU Today,” have noticed a familiar face serving as host of the show. On the small screen, Daphne Maxwell Reid is perhaps most recognizable for having played “Aunt Viv” to Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” on NBC from 1993 to 1996.

But Aunt Viv was neither the beginning nor the end for this accomplished Petersburg resident. A modern-day Renaissance woman, Maxwell Reid has excelled at everything she’s touched, from filmmaking to photography to grassroots philanthropy. She has served on the university’s board of visitors since 2008. 

“Serving on the board has taught me so much,” she says. “It’s been an amazing experience. I’m surrounded by competent, knowledgeable, lovely people.”

A highlight of her time on the board was the university’s search for its current president, Dr. Keith Miller, who was inaugurated in September.

“I am so proud of the choice that we made,” says Maxwell Reid. “He is exactly what the university needs, and a great asset to all that we’re doing.”

She says that she especially admires Dr. Miller’s efforts to strengthen the university’s brand and increase its visibility. Those efforts were the impetus for “VSU Today,” which boasts not only Maxwell Reid’s talent but that of Jesse Vaughan, an Emmy-winning director who produces the show.

“My part is easy,” Maxwell Reid says, laughing. “I just read the script and go home. The real work is done behind the scenes, by students and by Jesse. There is tremendous talent involved in it, and the finished show is just exquisite.

”Telling the detailed story of what’s happening at Virginia State University— from the campus farm to the doctoral program and beyond—is what Maxwell Reid loves about “VSU Today.”

“I hope it makes the students proud to be where they are,” she says. “I love that we are bringing the grandeur of VSU to the public. There’s so much more happening on that campus than people realize. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

When she’s not hosting the show or dealing with business on the board, Maxwell Reid can be found at New Millennium Studios, the full-service film studio complex in Petersburg that she co-owns with her husband, actor and director Tim Reid. Among the recent projects completed at the studio is a documentary film about Virginia’s history, to be shown to tour groups at the State Capitol.

“It’s not easy putting all that history into 22 minutes,” she says, “especially in a way that speaks to children on field trips. But we did it.”

Maxwell Reid says that while their ownership of the studios is equal, her husband deals more with the creative side of it. But through a recent pet project, she has been exploring her own creative side. In 2009, she debuted a collection of photographs called "Fresh Prints: Doors.” The collection features breathtaking images of architectural entryways, all captured by Maxwell Reid on her travels throughout Europe and Africa.

“I have always been interested in photography,” she says. “My father loved taking photos, and he gave me a Brownie camera when I was a child. I’ve always had a camera, for as long as I can remember.”

She says the decision to turn her private passion into a public art show was spurred by a personal milestone.

“In 2008, when I turned 60, it occurred to me that I’d never really validated myself as an artist,” she says. “I had been involved in a lot of great things, but I wanted to create something. And I thought, ‘I have a point of view to share, I need to do something with it.’”

So, with the encouragement of her family and friends, Maxwell Reid gathered her photos into collections from her favorite stops around the globe, including Venice, Berlin and Marrakech. She has been delighted by the response to her collection, which offers large-format, signed and numbered prints, as well as note cards adorned with her favorite shots. 

But why doors? Maxwell Reid earned her degree in interior design and architecture from Northwestern University, so structural details have a particular appeal for her. More than that, however, she says she is intrigued by what doorways represent.

“I’m fascinated by them,” she says. “I always want to know what’s behind them. They remind me of how many doors I’ve been through, how many I’ve opened, how many I have yet to discover.”

The photos illustrate just how far and wide Maxwell Reid’s travels have taken her. She says that travel, like photography, was always in her veins.

“I had an aunt who was in the Navy,” she says. “She would come back with all kinds of stories about places she’d been, and gifts from all over the world. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do someday, see all these places myself.’”

Having grown up in New York City, Maxwell Reid says she prefers the more sedate stops on her itinerary over the larger metropolitan areas. “I much prefer Kyoto to Tokyo,” she says. “And Paris is pretty, but it’s not my favorite part of France.”

But travel is more than just an artistic pastime, Maxwell Reid says. It’s an opportunity to broaden horizons, something that she says is crucial to growth.

“What I find difficult is insulated ignorance,” she says. “Too many people don’t go outside of their own environment. You have to expose yourself to other truths, have a wider worldview.”

Expanding worldviews is at the heart of another project Maxwell Reid holds dear: the Petersburg Library Foundation, which has worked since 2002 to raise funds for the construction of a new library in the city. The system is currently headquartered in a small, aging building on Sycamore Street, where it has had trouble keeping up with population growth and technological advances. Plans for the new library, to be constructed at West Washington and Market streets, include more than 40,000 additional square feet, plentiful public internet access, and ample visitor parking.

“This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on,” says Maxwell Reid. “It’s more than just a library. It’s a way to educate the population at all levels. It gives every citizen the chance to reach out and see the world.”

Even with all of these artistic and philanthropic projects bearing her name, it is clear that family is by far the most important thing to Maxwell Reid. She says that what she’s proudest of is her 6-year-old grandson, Kai. 

“He is such a bundle of energy,” she beams, “so vivacious and so loving. He amazes me all the time.”

Kai has apraxia of speech, a condition in which a child has difficulty with spoken language; even when he knows exactly what he wants to say, his brain can’t always coordinate the muscles to form the words.

“With great parents and great therapy,” Maxwell Reid says, “he learned to communicate with sign language so he could still say what was on his mind. Now, he says things more clearly all the time. It’s like watching a flower bloom—just glorious.”

When asked who inspires her, she answers without hesitation: her mother.

“My mother was one of the most socially responsible, non-judgmental people I’ve ever known,” she says. “She was a peacenik and a women’s-libber, and believed that all God’s children deserved respect. Everyone who knew her admired her.”

With that legacy in mind, Maxwell Reid says, she knows what she wants people to say about her when she has passed on.

“I want them to say that I made a difference,” she says. “That the things I touched were made better, and helped to grow.”

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