Historic giving

A century of support for The Exeter Fund.

Patrick Garrity
February 8, 2022

In December of 1922, as the nation made a wobbly recovery from a post-war recession and an influenza pandemic that killed millions worldwide, Exeter Principal Lewis Perry sent a letter to the school’s alumni.

He began by thanking them for their “generous help” in erasing the school’s debt and allowing it to pay off its mortgages. “This is truly a thankful achievement and it tells better than anything else can your splendid spirit for this school,” Perry wrote.

But this was not just a thank you note. The principal had other motives. The letter told of a promise the classes of 1920, ’21 and ’22 had made “to send Exeter, for running expenses, Ten Dollars a year at Christmas Time as a part of his Christmas and to do so as long as he lives. Isn’t that fine?” Perry wrote.

Then he arrived at the heart of the matter. “Perhaps then it is not too much for me to ask the older Alumni to join with these youngest classes in sharing their Christmas with the best School in America and to persuade them each one if they can, to give something every year in this way toward current expenses.”

On Dec. 15, 1922, Lewis Perry’s letter launched what would eventually come to be known as The Exeter Fund. That first year returned $5,821 from 302 donations, an average of $19.27 per gift. More critically, it established a mechanism for grateful alumni to give back to their alma mater and help offset expenses that otherwise would be covered by tuition. 

When Perry retired in 1946, the fund had raised more than a quarter-million dollars — an unprecedented amount for the times and the footing for what The Exeter Fund would become. Principal William Saltonstall built on Perry’s legacy, helping to launch a $5 million fundraising campaign in 1947 to offset a half-million-dollar annual operating deficit. The culture of philanthropy Perry inspired among Exonians was enduring. By 1980, annual giving surpassed $1 million. 

Seven decades after Perry made his initial plea, Kendra Stearns O’Donnell, Exeter’s 12th principal, addressed that culture of giving and its impact in a year-ending letter to alumni: “Those of us privileged to be here now know that the generosity of those who have gone before is the foundation on which we build each day’s accomplishments.”

Last year, thousands of alumni, parents and friends of the Academy combined to donate $10.2 million to The Exeter Fund, which introduced eight targeted designations: financial aid; academic excellence; the arts; athletics; global initiatives; health and wellness; equity and inclusion; and immediate priorities. In December, a campaign to support these designations raised more than $1.6 million from 2,017 donors in a single day.

Dr. Perry would be proud.

Editor's note: This feature first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.