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“Every day, we work to carry out the mission that Isaiah Williamson set for us,” says Williamson’s current president, Guy Gardner. “He was very clear about what he wanted this school to achieve. It’s our responsibility to fulfill his vision.”
Isaiah Vansant Williamson was born on February 4, 1803, near Bensalem Township in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The son of devout Quakers, he was one of eight children, a country boy who learned on his father’s farm the value of industry, frugality, and honesty. At the age of 15, he apprenticed himself to Harvey Gillingham, who ran a nearby country store. In time, Williamson saved enough money to move to Philadelphia and open his own dry goods shop. By 1838, with assets worth approximately $100,000 (roughly $2 million today), he retired from business, spending the next few years touring Europe.
But Williamson was too diligent to be a dilettante. He returned to Philadelphia, where he began investing his money in a variety of enterprises. By the 1880s, he was known to be one of the wealthiest men in the commonwealth, with an estimated fortune of $20 million (approximately $480 million today). He was also famous for his thrift, and was known throughout the city for allegedly taking meals no larger than a crust and making one suit last the usual time of two.
As he entered the last decades of his life, philanthropy engaged more and more of his attention. Williamson is believed to have given away about $5 million during his lifetime. Virtually all of his donations were made anonymously. He supported asylums and orphanages, hospitals and benevolent societies, libraries and universities. As his close friend John Wanamaker—himself an entrepreneur, the founder of the Wanamaker department store fortune—wrote in the only book-length biography of Williamson: “He was invariably strongly moved to help the man who was trying to help himself, however humble the effort. But for mere beggars, low or high, he had little sympathy.”
As early as the 1850s, Williamson had begun thinking of the plan for the school that would bear his name. As he told Wanamaker, “It was seeing boys, ragged and barefooted, playing or lounging about the streets, growing up with no education, no trade, no idea of usefulness, that caused me to think of founding a school where every boy could be taught some trade free of expense.” On December 1, 1888, he executed his plan. “He had to be wheeled from his carriage in a rolling chair,” wrote Wanamaker, “but his spirit was alert and joyful.”
Williamson committed $2.1 million (roughly $48 million in 2010) to the school. On February 25, 1889, he led a group of trustees to a site near Media, Pennsylvania. “The place is very nice,” was all he said, but it was evident that he was very pleased. Unfortunately, he soon fell ill and passed away on March 7. Two months later, the board authorized the purchase of the 211-acre site (the campus has since expanded to 220 acres) and hired Frank Furness as the architect for the buildings. Ground was broken on May 1, 1890. The school opened on October 31, 1891.
Williamson clearly stipulated that in considering admissions to the school, “[p]reference shall always be given to the poor.” To this day, the school recruits young men from the region’s toughest areas, working closely with ministers, guidance counselors, coaches, and other mentors to find promising young men who would benefit from learning a trade. And to this day, the school provides a full scholarship for all of its students, not one penny of which comes from public sources. “In this country,” Williamson explained, “every able-bodied, healthy young man who has learned a good mechanical trade, and is truthful, honest, frugal, temperate, and industrious, is certain to succeed in life, and to become a useful and respected member of society.”
Isaiah Williamson remains a living presence at the school that bears his name. Among the first books assigned to incoming students is Wanamaker’s biography of Williamson. Inspirational quotes from Williamson adorn the chapel, and his remains are buried at the entryway of the Main Building. But the most powerful testament to his enduring presence may well be the attitude of Williamson students. Unprompted, students like Jim Simpson, a second-year carpentry student, will acknowledge that they often ask themselves a simple question: “Am I making Isaiah proud?”
“On Day One, we talk about trees,” explains Ken Nelson, an instructor in the carpentry shop. “Sometimes I get confused looks. But I don’t care if my guys won the Golden Hammer Award at a voc-ed high school or if they went to a college prep Catholic school and have never held a two-by-four. If you want to be a carpenter, you need to understand lumber. And if you want to understand lumber, you have to know about trees. So we start with trees.”
Isaiah Williamson intended that graduates of his school would be excellent craftsmen. Students at Williamson are frequently reminded that it is a matter of personal integrity to work to the best of one’s ability. In shop classes, that means mastering basic skills before moving on to the next. In carpentry shop, for example, students start with hand tools: hammers, handsaws, chisels, and the like. Only after students have proven (and proven again) that they have mastered hand tools are they allowed to touch a power tool. “When these guys graduate, they will be at the advanced carpenter’s apprentice level,” Nelson explains. “But they will have a solid foundation. After a little time on the job, they should be able to rise quickly to the journeyman and foreman level.”
Integral to the school’s sense of craftsmanship—and in honor of its benefactor’s wishes—is a sense of frugality. Nelson describes with pride how long a $3 two-by-four lasts in the carpentry shop. Seniors practice steep-pitched plumb cuts for roof rafters, shaving the edges to adjust the pitch downwards. Juniors then trim the edges square and practice using the board as a cross beam in a framing exercise. Freshmen then take over the board, cutting it into sections and using handsaws, miters, and chisels to practice joinery. By the end of that exercise, the two-week-old board is cut into two-inch sections and burned as firewood.
The day is structured to prepare students for full-time employment. Shop classes are meant to be physically taxing. In masonry shop, students haul around bricks and cement blocks. Carpenters pound nails while landscapers work chainsaws. In the paint shop, students throw up and tear down scaffolding; in the metal shop, they huddle over lathes and presses; at the campus power plant, they circle around the generators, checking and rechecking equipment. Throughout it all, students are constantly drilled on theory, technique, and safe practices.
The Williamson academic curriculum, meanwhile, is geared toward practicality. English courses place a strong emphasis on effective writing, with a view to composing clear and concise business letters and job estimates. Trigonometry is taught less as a prelude to calculus and more as the indispensable method for determining the slope of an outdoor stairway. Spanish is the only foreign language offered, with a heavy accent placed on the vocabulary necessary to communicate with a limited-English Hispanic work crew.
But Williamson students take courses in accounting, entrepreneurship, business ethics, and public speaking. The wide-ranging curriculum explains why the course of study takes three years rather than two. The school wants its graduates not just prepared to enter a trade, but to take on a career. Indeed, students are encouraged to take on weekend and summer jobs, so that they gain experience working for clients. The school has a long track record of graduating small business owners and entrepreneurs, and many of the students look forward to the day when they will set up their own shop.
“I have been teaching masonry at Williamson for 13 years,” says masonry shop instructor Daniel Hiltebeitel. “My graduates have a 100 percent employment record. Find me a college professor anywhere who can say that. These are good jobs. I put my kids through college as a mason. These guys will, too.”
The Williamson Man
“It reminds me a bit of my time in the Army,” says Hank Rowan of Williamson student life. “Up early in the morning, hard at work right away, three square meals, and a good night of sleep.” The comparison is not uncommon. “We’re sometimes asked how our students handle the discipline,” says Gardner. “The truth is, it’s not really an issue. I experienced the same thing when I was at the Air Force Academy. You acquire good habits and they become second nature.” Gardner knows firsthand how important those early good habits can be later in life. He went on to fly 177 combat missions in Southeast Asia, served as an Air Force test pilot, and piloted two Space Shuttle missions, including STS-27, which suffered more than 700 damaged tiles re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
Every minute of every day, Williamson strives to instill character in its students. All students must live on campus during the work week. At 6:45 a.m., the entire student body assembles outside of the Main Building. The officer of the day takes roll and inspects each young man. Every student is expected to be properly groomed and freshly shaved, in a coat and tie, with shoes polished. There is no excuse for violating the dress code. The school accepts used men’s clothing, and runs an exchange where students may select items, free of charge, from a variety of donated suits, slacks, blazers, and ties. Violations of the dress or grooming code result in four points—demerits, essentially—and every demerit earns an hour of landscaping duty on the weekend.
After a breakfast that begins at 6:50 a.m., the students proceed to chapel. At 7:30 a.m., there is a mandatory, non-denominational Christian service, often consisting of a scriptural reading, a sermon, and prayers. At 8:00 a.m., the business of the day begins. Still in coat and tie, freshmen and seniors head to class; juniors change into work clothes and report to their shops. At noon, the campus breaks for an hourlong lunch, after which juniors change into coats and ties and go to class, while freshmen and seniors don their work gear and head to the shops. Dinner is served at 5:00 sharp, followed by sports and extracurricular programs. From 8:30 to 10:00 p.m., students are expected to study. Lights go off at 10:30.
The school has zero tolerance for alcohol and other drugs, and conducts random inspections, breathalyzer tests, and urinalyses. Students found in violation of the policy are summarily expelled. To attend the school, young men must be unmarried and childless. Should a student marry or have a child, points out Gardner, “his priorities need to be focused on his family, not on this school.” But the code of conduct reaches much further, extending into more quotidian aspects of daily life. Internet access is tightly controlled, and only websites relevant to the course of study are available. Each dorm has one television, located in the common room. Students are allowed to carry a cell phone on their person, but outside of their dorms, it cannot see the light of day.
Of course, character education is not simply a matter of negative prescriptions. It also involves positive action, which Williamson encourages through extensive service programs. Every student is expected to help defray operating costs, for example, so each rotates through a regular schedule of landscaping duty and kitchen detail. Off-campus, students engage in a wide variety of community service projects. Masons lay the stonework at veterans’ memorials, while landscapers spruce up the grounds at retirement homes. Painters help local schools with set design, while carpenters build wheelchair ramps for state troopers disabled in the line of duty.
“The goal is to create an identifiable Williamson Man,” explains Gardner. “We believe that Williamson men will be better fathers, husbands, employees, employers, neighbors, community leaders, and gentlemen. If we do that, then we are truly fulfilling the intent of our founding donor.”
Christopher Levenick is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy.