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Looking back on 100 years of Tower Hill School

Delaware Public Media

Wilmington’s Tower Hill School is marking a major milestone.

One of the state’s oldest private schools - Tower Hill turns 100 in 2019,  and celebrates its centennial this month with a full slate of events Sept. 20 and 21st at the school.

When Tower Hill School celebrates its centennial next weekend, its students, staff and alumni will be looking in two directions: back in appreciation of the members of the du Pont family who founded the school and forward as it strives to succeed in carrying out its goal of being “of Wilmington and of the world.”

Alarmed by the poor condition of Delaware’s public schools and troubled by the relative lack of private options (only Wilmington Friends School, Ursuline Academy, Salesianium School and the Greenhill School on Pennsylvania Avenue were then in operation in the area), eight members of the du Pont family and three close friends and business associates gathered in January 1919 and, according to Tower Hill’s first catalog, developed a plan for a school “to be housed in a conveniently arranged building of approved modern construction” that would “exemplify in its operation thoroughly sane methods and ideals, under the care of competent teachers and experience.”

By contemporary standards, it’s reasonable to say they moved at warp speed, as it took a mere eight months for the new school to open, albeit in the building of the Greenhill School, which Tower Hill absorbed, as it would take another year to complete construction at the current site on West 17th Street near Rising Sun Lane.

Credit Tower Hill School
Tower Hill School
Ernest DiSabatino, his sons and workers lay bricks at the Tower Hill School entrance in 1919.

The new school, the catalog stated, would serve kindergarten through 12th grade, with small class sizes so “the pupil of marked ability will be given a chance to advance as rapidly as is advisable” and “special aid will be extended to the child who experiences difficulty in any subject.”

A century later, those objectives still manifest themselves in a variety of ways. In the upper school, 135 different classes are offered, with four world language options – French, Spanish, Mandarin and Latin – offered in middle and upper school. And computer coding lessons start in kindergarten. At the end of each semester the school sets aside a week – called the Tower Term – for project-based learning opportunities that give both students and faculty exposure to topics not typically taught in the classroom. While often perceived as an academic enclave serving northern Delaware’s upper crust, Tower Hill awards $2.8 million annually in financial aid and one-third of its 755 students are non-white.

But the school’s nearly familial association with the du Ponts still endures. One five-generation chain begins with founder Lammot du Pont II, whose portrait hangs in the school’s lobby next to one of his son, Pierre S. du Pont III, a 1929 graduate  and longtime chair of the school’s board of trustees. His son, Pierre S. du Pont IV, Delaware’s governor from 1977 to 1985, attended Tower Hill through eighth grade, and one of his three sons, Benjamin Franklin du Pont, also started at Tower Hill and now has returned to serve on the board of trustees. The fifth generation is represented by Ben du Pont Jr., a member of the Class of 2020.

"To a certain extent in education, you're playing defense, keeping up with what has happened. A healthy organization is always pushing, not afraid of failure." - Ben du Pont, Tower Hill School trustee.

“We’ve always pushed the edge on innovative things,” says Ben du Pont, a trustee for the past five years.  “To a certain extent in education, you’re playing defense, keeping up with what has happened. A healthy organization is always pushing, not afraid of failure. Tower Term is a good example of that.”

The past spring’s Tower Term experience made a strong impression on his son, who spent the week learning about beekeeping in a class taught by Tom Speers, the husband of Head of School Bessie Speers.

“Beekeeping – now that’s something I wouldn’t normally have done. It’s a totally non-academic course, which I think is awesome. It’s cool to learn where your food comes from, especially honey, and to get a better understanding of environmental issues,” Ben du Pont Jr. says.

One highlight of the class, Bessie Speers says, “a breakfast where everything that was served was a food that would not exist without pollination.”

Another example of pushing the innovation envelope is the school’s development of a class in social innovation and entrepreneurship taught by faculty members from the University of Pennsylvania. The semester-long class, open to juniors and seniors, gives students the chance to “generate an idea, prove it out, test it, and try to form collaborations to make the idea a reality,” says Anthony Pisapia, Tower Hill’s assistant head of school.

Projects conceived last year, Pisapia says, included a program to get low-income students interested in jobs in landscaping; creating an online marketplace to connect students to local volunteer opportunities; and designing and making turbans that appeal to youth, with proceeds from any sales benefiting a nonprofit that promotes understanding of the Sikh culture.

Credit Tower Hill School
Tower Hill School
Students work in the Tower Hill School woodshop during the 1950s.

Tower Hill is important to Delaware, says Mike Castle, a 1957 graduate, because “so many very good citizens who have contributed a lot to the state” received their early learning there. Castle, like Pete du Pont, is a former congressman and governor, and he’s quick to note the bipartisan distribution of its alumni, pointing to U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from the Class of 1981.

“It offers an education as strong as any that you will find in Delaware,” says Castle, who walked (and sometimes biked) to the school from pre-kindergarten through high school from his home in Wilmington’s nearby Highlands neighborhood.

Working to continue – and expand – that tradition of excellence is Speers, who arrived at Tower Hill in 2015 – coincidentally after leading the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut through its centennial year. “When this is over, I’ll feel like I’m 200 years old,” she says.

While she speaks often about making the school “of Wilmington and of the world,” the larger portion of that mantra may be the easier one to achieve.

Notable graduates, like Coons, former DuPont Co. CEO Ellen Kullman and television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, have had opportunities to perform on a global stage. And last year the school enrolled 15 international students and participated in eight global exchange programs.

“We’ve got kids from other countries – Lithuania, Germany and China. I’ve met kids from all over the world,” says Ben du Pont Jr. “We’re more in touch with global issues. You get perspectives you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Then Tower Hill sophomore Carolline Hayper (center) joins other students in making blankets for Fleece for Keeps as part of King Day service project.

Building more bridges into the Wilmington community has become one of Speers’ key goals.

When the school was founded, Speers says, the du Ponts “wanted to provide a great education for the children, but also to have a positive impact on our region – to be a private school with a public purpose.”

Now, she says, “we want to tie that [sense of purpose] back to our vision,” making sure Tower Hill is a place “where kids can come together based on intellect, not hampered by economic considerations.”

Indeed, while Castle remembers some classmates who weren’t members of the region’s upper class, he notes that the school’s first African-American student “didn’t arrive until years after I graduated” – nine years later, in fact.

Since then enrollment of minority students has risen steadily – from minuscule to 33 percent of the school population. It helps that the school’s associate director of admission (and its director of alumni relations) is Matt Twyman, an African-American who entered Tower Hill in pre-kindergarten in 1974, graduated in 1988 and now counts his own three children as members of its student body.

One of his preschool teachers suggested to his parents that he enroll there, Twyman recalls, and the school already had made a favorable impression on his father, whose cousin, Trudy Harris, was Tower Hill’s second African-American graduate.

“We’re reaching out into the community, where we haven’t gone before,” Twyman says. “By putting me in the admissions office, you can disarm people. You get rid of your preconceived notions when you see somebody who looks like you.”

"One thing I hear, time and time again, is how welcoming we are. We're definitely headed in the right direction." - Matt Twyman, Tower Hill associate director of admission and alumni relations director.

Tower Hill’s outreach is bidirectional. For example, a summer outreach program brings lower-income children to the campus while Upper School students engage in community service by assisting in after school programs at Boys & Girls Clubs.

Students from Serviam Academy and Nativity Prep, private middle schools that serve low-income students in the Wilmington area, are invited to participate in activities at the school, including in an array of community service projects organized for Martin Luther King Day. One or more students from these schools, Twyman says, will visit for most of the school day, tour the building, participate in Middle School classes and meet with Tower Hill students who previously attended Serviam or Nativity.

Also, this year Tower Hill is one of several private schools partnering in the APEX Honors Program at Eastside Charter School, a program designed to encourage qualified Eastside students to consider applying to private schools.

“One thing I hear, time and time again, is how welcoming we are,” Twyman says. “We’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

Tower Hill School Centennial Weekend Events:

Tower Hill School celebrates its 100th anniversary with two full days of activities, capped by a Centennial Gala on Saturday, Sept. 21, featuring cocktails, dinner, live music, dancing and fireworks. About 1,300 people are expected, and no more tickets are available.

Special programming on Friday, Sept. 20, includes campus tours and classroom visits for alumni, a pep rally, three junior varsity athletic events, a varsity volleyball game, a reception honoring past and present faculty and trustees and the opening of an artists and authors show.

The show will exhibit visual art and books by Tower Hill alumni, faculty and parents. Many of the participants will read from and sign their works. Artists include alumni David Larned and Ann Blakey Barlow Ashley (also a faculty member) and former art teacher George Martz. Authors include former parent Gloria Respress-Churchwell, and two alumni, science fiction writer Andrew Gates and Hal Gardner, whose most recent book is “World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism.” Also exhibiting will be alumnus Chris Pechin, a Peabody Award-winning storyboard artist for films, television, commercials and books.

Other events on Saturday, Sept. 21, include a convocation at 10 a.m., followed by a barbecue, a presentation on the school’s history and future, and four athletic events – a cross country meet and varsity soccer, field hockey and football games.

Expect the campus and the surrounding area to be more crowded than usual. Tower Hill football games usually draw about 500 fans, school officials say. About 1,000 people are expected for the convocation, and many of the alumni are likely to remain on campus for the other activities during the day.

More information on these activities is available on the centennial webpage.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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