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A living legacy

The engagingly compassionate vision of H. Hamilton Bissel '29 endures today. 

By
Daneet Steffens
July 25, 2019
Hammy Bissell stands before a map of the United States

“How does Exeter benefit? It has an instruction system which calls for 12 students to be seated around a table with the instructor to talk things over. If all came from the same social and economic strata, their thinking would be almost identical. The scholarship plan gives an economic, geographic and social cross section of the nation and diversified thinking for full discussion of every phase of work in the school.”
—H. Hamilton Bissell to the Miami Daily News, February 15, 1949

Byron Rose ’59 tells the story of his teenage self, “painfully shy” and living in the can’t-get-there-from-here city of Evansville, Indiana, when H. Hamilton Bissell ’29 first came into his life.

Rose had been accepted to Exeter on a generous scholarship but had declined the opportunity. That’s when Bissell turned up to talk some sense into him.

“To get to Evansville by train was not easy, but Hammy came and took me and my father out for breakfast,” notes Rose, who was impressed. “I said to my dad, ‘The worst that can happen is I go there for junior year and come back to Indiana afterward.’” 

A version of that bacon-and-eggs sales pitch was delivered time and again across the Midwest from 1946 until 1960, with the man simply and affectionately known as “Hammy” making the case to more than 800 young men that Phillips Exeter Academy was the place for them. An English instructor for 13 years before being appointed by the school as its first director of scholarships, Bissell spearheaded an initiative to diversify the Academy’s student body through a comprehensive outreach project. The strategy would enable those boys whose families might not otherwise have the money — or, indeed, even an awareness of the school — to attend Exeter. That proactive effort has had everlasting effects, on the recipients who came to be known collectively as “Hammy’s boys” and on the Academy itself. More than 70 years on, Bissell’s legacy remains vibrant, still full of its original promise.

“I have heard it said that education is America’s magic,” Bissell told Boston Post Magazine in 1949, under the eye-catching headline, “He Scouts for Scholars.” “America is supposed to be a democratic institution. I am sure, however, that economic, religious and racial differences produce attendant inequalities of opportunity among boys and girls.” 

In seeking out potential students who were impacted by those limitations, Bissell worked with educational guidance personnel; 4-H, Scout, and Future Farmers leaders; those working with refugees and their families; YMCA officials; and, most famously, newspapermen employing delivery boys. 

Rose was delivering newspapers in Evansville when Bissell found him. 

“It was purely serendipitous: Mr. Ellis, the man who owned the newspaper, had gone to Exeter,” Rose recalls. “I was a good athlete — I was playing basketball and was a runner — but I was also painfully shy, so I said, ‘No.’ Mr. Ellis said, ‘Well, let’s just send in your application. You might not be good enough.’ Which really spurred me on, actually.” 

Rose was accepted on an eye-wateringly good scholarship: “Room, board and tuition was $1,600 for the year; we got financial aid for $1,400, so for $200 my parents wouldn’t have me eating at home,” he laughs. At the time, he says, Exeter’s only publication was a book the size of a novel, with dry descriptions of the school’s courses. But Rose found a magazine article on Exeter that touted a calculus option for uppers. That intrigued the keen math student, but he still wasn’t convinced, and turned down the scholarship. That’s when Bissell showed up for breakfast.

I was woefully unprepared for some of the classes I was in, and having Hammy around really helped.”
Byron Rose '59

The real jewel in that scholarship crown, according to Rose, was that Bissell didn’t just recruit students, he nurtured them on campus as well: “For a kid like me, the school was not a very welcoming place; it was pretty much sink or swim. I was woefully unprepared for some of the classes I was in, and having Hammy around really helped. He was able to steer me to people I could talk to.”

Bissell’s encouragement made the difference for Rose. In turn, Rose, who worked at Morgan Stanley for the bulk of his career, has made a difference to Exeter, serving on its Board of Trustees for 10 years, including three years as chair. “I jumped at the opportunity,” he says, noting that Bissell went out of his way to offer congratulations for Rose’s appointment: “I assume I was the first scholarship boy to be the head of the board, and I know that also pleased him.” 

Rose describes serving on Exeter’s Board of Trustees as one of the best professional experiences of his life. “That opportunity to participate wasn’t just a way to contribute, it also meant working with a group of people who sat around the table with a common interest in mind,” Rose explains, inevitably conjuring up Harkness classrooms. “It was a fantastic experience working with all these really incredible people. Being on the board when we gave a eulogy for Hammy when he died was a high point for me. He was a wonderful human being."

In Hammy's footsteps

It was another breakfast meeting that brought Julian Conway Wilson ’62 to Exeter. Wilson’s mother, the daughter of Robert Harold Ogle, one of the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American fraternity, was determined to get her son out of segregated Richmond, Virginia. “She got Hammy to come to me,” Wilson says. “She was determined to get me the hell out of Dodge. Hammy used to tease me with that story every time he saw me on campus, that my mother got me into Exeter because she fixed him one of the most wonderful brunches he’d ever had.” 

Wilson, like Rose, found Exeter extremely challenging; like Rose, he found sanctuary in Bissell’s humane approach. “Suddenly, I was around a lot of talented, well-prepared, motivated students from all walks of life. Hammy was visionary in his view of diversity for Exeter, and I think he made it a healthier culture. He tried to make sure that we, the scholarship boys, were as adjusted as we could be given Exeter’s culture at the time: He was a nurturing and protecting force at a time when Exeter was basically men against boys. I was pretty stubborn and hard-headed and independent, so I was called to the Dean’s Office at times. But Hammy moderated the trouble I got into, basically saying, ‘Look, he’s not a bad kid, he’s just his own kind of person.’ He gave me counseling, reminding me what a wonderful opportunity I had.” 

Hammy was visionary in his view of diversity for Exeter, and I think he made it a healthier culture.”
Julian Conway Wilson ‘62

Wilson incorporated that model of outreach and inclusivity when he attended the University of Pennsylvania, founding the school’s first group for students of color and fostering a welcoming environment, just as Bissell had done at Exeter. “I was always interested in human rights and social justice,” Wilson says. “It’s part of my DNA in every way. When I got to Penn, I had been well prepared at Exeter so I knew how to stand up to things — I knew I could meet another calling and help other students who might not be as well prepared. People who were at Penn with me were extraordinary, but they hadn’t had an Exeter education, so they were taken aback by the rigor and the social exclusion. Our group was there as support and also to work against attrition of students who were less prepared and resourced.” 

Wilson, who currently works with the District of Columbia Housing Authority, has pursued that commitment to helping the disenfranchised and underserved throughout his career. “Everything I’ve done has focused on that,” he says. “I wasn’t a great student of Latin — in fact, I had to switch from Latin to German — but I know non sibi. I think we should help other people, love humanity and not feel that we are above others in any way.” 

Leading with compassion

The empathy that Hammy demonstrated over the decades had very specific roots. “Dad was a scholarship boy,” says Hammy’s son, John “Jack” Bissell ’58; P’95, who pursued a career in law that included serving as a federal judge for more than 20 years. “He came to Exeter as a lower in 1926, and the school was very different then — there was no Harkness plan in the classroom yet — but he remembered the nurturing that the faculty gave him, the attention they paid to him. And, having come to Exeter from a poor background, he had a lot of empathy with kids who came from similar situations.” 

His father, notes the younger Bissell, had his own generous and loving support system during his tenure as director of scholarships. “When Dad hit the road searching for qualified scholarship candidates, he was away nearly five months of every year until about 1960,” Bissell says. “Therefore, it was Mom’s strength and support which mostly carried me and my sister, Nancy, through those formative years. That unqualified devotion from this beautiful, gracious but tough New England woman was an example of loyalty which I have never forgotten: From both Mom and Dad, I saw that courage, character and caring are three very important tenets in leading a life that sets a positive example for both your children and others, and I never lost sight of that.” 

Jack Bissell '58 pictured at the dedication of a crew shell named after his dad.

That familial sense of inclusion was something that the elder Bissell disseminated with obvious pleasure. “Something in [Hammy’s] outreach rang a bell in my parents,” says Jim Peterson ’63, who lived in a remote spot of Iowa when Bissell came knocking. “I give them credit for having the insight and courage to encourage me to go to Exeter. In the tiny rural community where we lived, the notion of going away to a boarding school was just unthinkable.” 

Peterson, a legal expert and published author who now divides his time between Chicago and Paris, remains active with Exeter. As a volunteer, he served as a major gift chair for his class as well as taking on the role of co-president leading up to their 50th reunion. He has also recognized his parents’ foresight in a tangible way. By establishing The Philip C. and Elizabeth Peterson Scholarship Fund, he ensured that future generations would be able to attend Exeter. It was a forward-focused gesture, stemming directly from Bissell’s original invitation. “Hammy seduced us all,” Peterson says. “My mother used to chuckle and — you know his physical appearance, a short, round-faced, jolly man? — she’d say that he came cruising through the Midwest like Santa Claus with that cherubic face and a bag full of money slung over his back, distributing opportunities for financial aid.” 

Bissell had discretionary funds to spend on his scholarship boys once they were on campus, too, in case he determined that there was something a student might need that wasn’t within his budget. Peterson had worked his way up to be goaltender on the varsity hockey team, requiring specific skates: “It was not in my family budget to buy them, so [Hammy] went into his cookie jar and bought me a pair of skates. He enabled me to keep skating.” 

He was such an avatar for the community nature of the school — the best part of the school, in other words.”
Jim Peterson ‘63

Exeter alum Jim Peterson

As a student employee, Peterson also appreciated Hammy’s work with Exeter’s Alumni Affairs Office, where Bissell held various roles starting in 1962, including alumni secretary and associate director of development, cultivating a sense of continuity with Exeter students long after they left campus. “What was really captivating about him in that role,” Peterson says, “was his recollection and memory and sensitivity to the students, especially with those for whom he’d provided the door-opening. You’d go back to campus and there he would be with a big grin, and he’d greet you and ask about your parents and remember them by name; he remembered your hometown and your class, and he knew who your friends were. He was such an avatar for the community nature of the school — the best part of the school, in other words.” 

With Carly Kirsch ’20, the current Peterson Scholarship recipient, that element of engagement brings Bissell’s overarching legacy nicely home to Exeter’s campus. An avid shot, discus and javelin thrower for the track and field team, Kirsch also has an abiding interest in the sciences and Russian, and a deep appreciation for the opportunities that the Academy offers. “Exeter has forced me to try new things,” she says. “Without going to Exeter, I would not have gotten into track, which is something I now plan on doing in college. Without Exeter, I would have never taken Russian or traveled to Russia for a month last summer. My Russian class has had the same eight people all three years, and we have a really strong bond.” 

In a letter Kirsch wrote to Peterson this spring, she said, “From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for investing in my education. It is unbelievable the amount of opportunities I have as a 17-year-old girl from a small town in New Hampshire. Every day I get to walk into the largest secondary school library in the world. Twice a week I get to listen to inspiring assembly speakers. And every day I get to be surrounded by some of the most incredible humans whom I can call my friends. I am so lucky to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and I know it wouldn't be possible without you."

A legacy of goodness

The ripple effect that one man’s actions can have decades later shines in stories such as Kirsch’s, and hers is one among many. Kathy Nekton, who led Exeter’s physical education department alongside her husband, Roger, for 35 years, remembers Bissell vividly. As the girls field hockey coach, Nekton had his granddaughter, Katie Bissell ’95, on one of her teams. “Hammy was absolutely faithful in coming out to practices on his bicycle every day,” Nekton says. “And when we were going to away games, he would always come bearing chocolate bars and see us off.” 

Even after his granddaughter graduated, Bissell continued to attend field hockey team practices. For those young athletes, Nekton observes, having someone with such a deep and enduring connection to Exeter supporting them with such regularity had an indelible impact. “To have an older adult be so faithful was just wonderful for the girls,” she says. “It’s like having your grandpa come out and cheer you on.” 

Exeter, Nekton adds, has terrific resources that allow its faculty to support and care for their students, but Bissell was actually ahead of that particular curve: He led by example, and his pioneering vision is integral to what drives the school today in terms of inclusion and diversity. 

“He was innovative,” Nekton notes. “He was such a compassionate man and he looked for ways to make that possible for others, too. He set the context for that kind of approach, making sure that all the kids — and a wider variety of kids — had access to our community.” 

Wilson agrees that Bissell’s impact cannot be overstated. “He was really focused on young people in an extraordinary way, and that made all the difference. At Exeter, I learned that smart people come in all sizes, shapes, colors and genders; Exeter was a place where stereotypes were challenged. Hammy worked very hard to make Exeter an increasingly better place, in a very positive way.” 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

A champion for chances

By Patrick Garrity

David Beim ’58 was one of “Hammy’s boys,” and he never forgot that.  A self-described “kid from the Midwest who got magically transported to four of the most transformative years of my life” at Exeter, Beim spent a lifetime dedicated to service, community and forging for others the sorts of opportunities he was so grateful to experience. He died peacefully at his home in Riverdale, New York, on June 6, 2019. He was 79 years old. Exeter alum David Beim

Beim was a newspaper delivery boy in Minneapolis when Director of Scholarships H. Hamilton Bissell ’29 found him through the paper’s circulation director in 1954. Like so many of the students Bissell identified in that era, Beim seized his opportunity to attend Exeter and thrived in its midst, and success followed him after graduation. He shined at Stanford and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He spent 25 years in investment banking on Wall Street, and the next 25 years in academia as professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School.

Beim remained beholden to Exeter and the doors it opened, and when he became a trustee in 2002, he was a champion for opening doors to others. His work as a trustee centered on affordability and expanding the school’s commitment to financial aid. He authored a report the Trustees used as a guidepost in increasing aid by 18 percent to lower-income students in 2006.

“Our mandate from John Phillips was clear: to serve youth from every quarter, not just those who can afford the price,” Beim wrote in The Exeter Bulletin in 2012.

Beim is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, a son and a daughter, and five grandchildren. An appreciation of his contributions published in The Riverdale Press included a line that aptly summarized his life’s perspective: “David Beim put family first, education second, and serving the community a very close third. Everything else was, well, everything else.” 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.