Isaiah 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 farm boy who learned early on the value of industry, frugality, and honesty. At the age of 15, he apprenticed himself to Harvey Gillingham, who ran a nearby country store. Within seven years, Williamson had saved $2,000. It was enough money to move to Philadelphia and open his own dry goods business. By 1838, with assets worth approximately $100,000 (roughly $2 million today), he retired, spending the next few years touring Europe.
But Williamson was unsuited for the life of a dilettante. He returned to Philadelphia, where he began investing his money in real estate and promising 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 $500 million today). He was equally famous for his thrift, and was known throughout the city for allegedly taking a bread crust for a meal, and making one suit last as long as most men had 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. Determining the extent of his generosity has always been difficult; virtually all of his donations were made under strict condition of secrecy or under the pseudonym “Hez.” Throughout the Delaware River basin, he supported scores of asylums and orphanages, hospitals and benevolent societies, libraries, seminaries, colleges, and universities. As his close friend John Wanamaker—himself a philanthropist and 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 a plan for a 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 $50 million in present value) to the project. 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 those with him reported that he seemed very pleased. Unfortunately, Williamson soon fell ill, dying less than two weeks later. Yet his plans were well laid. Two months later, the board authorized the purchase of the 211-acre site and hired Frank Furness as architect for the buildings. The Williamson Free School of the Mechanical Trades opened in 1891.
Williamson clearly stipulated that in considering admissions to the school, “preference 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. Programs of study are offered in carpentry, masonry, landscaping, machine tools, painting, and power-plant technology. All students are required to live on-campus in supervised dormitories, attend a daily chapel service, and conform to the dress code.
“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.”
~ Christopher Levenick