Williamson Free School for Mechanical Trades

  • Education
  • 1888

Philadelphia merchant Isaiah Williamson was frugal and hardworking, and by the 1880s he was one of the wealthiest men in the commonwealth, with an estimated fortune of $20 million (about half a billion dollars today). He gave away millions, supporting asylums and orphanages, hospitals and benevolent societies, libraries and universities. He was “strongly moved to help the man who was trying to help himself,” said his friend John Wanamaker. “But for mere beggars, low or high, he had little sympathy.”

In 1888, Williamson founded “a school where every boy could be taught some trade free of expense,” committing more than $2 million to the facility. To this day, the school recruits young men from Philadelphia’s toughest areas, working closely with ministers, guidance counselors, and coaches to find promising individuals for whom learning an occupation could be the difference between success and happiness or misery in life. The school provides a full scholarship for all of its students, yet accepts no government money.

The school’s formula was renewed and put on solid financial footing for the future by a 2008 campaign that raised $50 million—$20 million each coming from donors Henry Rowan and Gerry Lenfest. The school only enrolls about 275 men, and prides itself on instilling character that may have even greater value to the community in the long run than the economic skills imparted. Students must live on campus, where the workweek starts with a 6:45 a.m. inspection. Every student is expected to be properly groomed and freshly shaved, in a coat and tie, with shoes polished. (Violations earn an hour of landscaping duty on the weekend.) After breakfast and mandatory chapel, half the students head to class still in coat and tie, the other half don work gear and report to shops. After lunch, they switch.

Trades classes are physically and mentally taxing, and are matched with courses in effective business writing, accounting, entrepreneurship, business ethics, and public speaking that prepare many graduates for self-reliance and economic independence. The school has zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs, and the young men must be unmarried and childless. Each dorm has just one television, located in the common room. Every student rotates through landscaping and kitchen duties, and engages in off-campus 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 former school head (and space shuttle pilot) Guy Gardner. “We believe that Williamson men will be better fathers, husbands, employees, employers, neighbors, community leaders, and gentlemen.”