The William Boyce Thompson legacy lives on

Exeter’s new field house opens and home meets return.

Karen Ingraham
May 9, 2018
Play VideoThompson Field House

The Thompson Field House boasts more than 84,000 square feet.

The new, wooden bleachers that run the length of the track and seat about 500 were at capacity on a brisk Saturday in late January. Members of the PEA community — students, parents, trustees, alumni and employees — sat in anticipation, many with maroon pennants in hand, ready to wave.

On the previous night, the building’s name had been formally announced: The William Boyce Thompson Field House. It’s a fitting choice. Eighty-nine years ago, almost to the day, the Thompson Cage stood on the same ground, ready to house the school’s first indoor track meets. The generosity of Thompson, class of 1890, who funded the Cage’s construction, transformed and elevated Exeter’s athletics and the overall student experience. In honor of that legacy and in anticipation of history repeating itself, the new field house carries his name and the vision forward.

Dressed in red and gray warmup gear, the boys and girls winter track and field team ran onto the track at the grand opening of the field house that Saturday. Pennants fluttered and the crowd cheered. More than 100 Exonians, about 10 percent of the student body, participate in the winter program each year, making it one of PEA’s largest competitive sports teams. The team gathered to sit on either side of the stage and listened raptly to their coach, Hilary Coder Hall, reflect on the weight of that moment in her remarks: “Has it really been seven years since we have had a track meet here at home? Seven years since we have been able to train aggressively on turns or on runways, or in fact, simply to be a team, all in one space, together?”

More importantly, Hall added, “We all know that the success and support that is experienced as a member of a healthy team can be the thing that gives a student the strength and confidence to do the hard work in the Exeter classroom. To weather those late-night storms, and sometimes bigger life storms, knowing that their team and their coaches are here as a safe harbor.”

Wrestlers, too, have the opportunity to push themselves farther and to feel more deeply the support of their campus community in the field house’s dedicated wrestling room, which includes spectator seating. The tennis teams can also practice for the first time on indoor courts, and the baseball and softball teams can take infinite swings in the batting cages. Every team and sports club, every adult and student member of the Academy community, has access to a space designed to increase the health and well-being of all who utilize it.

“When all is said and done, the very best way we can say ‘thank you’ is for each of us to honor the gift of the Thompson Field House, this gift that will likely enhance virtually every Exonian’s experience, by being the best people we can possibly be,” Hall said in her closing remarks. “The best athletes, teammates, coaches, parents, alumni, sons, daughters, siblings and friends we can possibly be. Let our deeds, our behaviors, and the striving to continually improve our performances be our way of saying how much we appreciate all that you have given. We are grateful and humbled beyond words.”

After the ceremony, the student athletes shed their warmup gear, passed the first batons and cleared the first hurdles. The home crowd cheered on.


Who is William Boyce Thompson?

By Patrick Garrity

His classmates called him “Tommy,” and few Exonians have appreciated their time at the Academy more. But when William Boyce Thompson set foot on campus in January 1887, it was as familiar to him as the dark side of the moon.

He had grown up in frontier Montana amid the Indian Wars and gold rushes of the American West. His hometown of Butte was a mining camp of “whisky and women and dice and profanity,” writes Hermann Hagedorn in The Magnate: William Boyce Thompson and His Time. “Young William, at 15, was gambling in the beer halls for stakes which might have made an adult dizzy.”

Thompson “went to public school, such as it was, without notable result” and his teachers predicted little promise, save for an Oxford scholar whom circumstance had led to Butte. He urged Thompson east “to get a bigger view of things.”

And so, at 17, he came to Exeter. There began a love affair that would last until his death more than 40 years later.

“Exeter days were happy days for me,” Thompson would recall long afterward. “I knew when I was passing through them that I was enjoying a time the memory of which would remain always and give me pleasure.”

The Academy didn’t tame Thompson, but it did harness his intellect and feed his ambition. He never graduated from the school, nor from the Columbia School of Mines he subsequently attended. But “Exeter gave him perspective, social, intellectual, spiritual,” Hagedorn writes, and he used that learned viewpoint — and a knowledge of mining earned by birthplace — to build a fortune.

He struck it rich first investing in and promoting copper mining, and then sulfur, gold, iron ore and oil, with holdings stretching from Canada to Peru. He became a giant on Wall Street and a political power broker and was a millionaire by 35. Shrewd and sometimes ruthless in business, Thompson was remarkably generous with his wealth — and none benefited more than Exeter.

His gifts transformed campus. He built a gymnasium, a science center, squash courts and a sports cage. He paid for Jeremiah Smith Hall and The Exeter Inn. He served as a trustee through the 1920s, even after he was partially paralyzed by a stroke, and gave money for dorms and scholarships and teaching positions. In January 1930, he donated $1 million to the school’s endowment, equivalent to nearly $15 million today.

He died six months later from complications of pneumonia. He was 61.

“His old school had come to exercise a hold on his heart and mind which increased from year to year,” Hagedorn writes. “In his march to wealth he had grown away from her for a time, but the discovery that the Academy needed him drew him by degrees nearer to her than he had felt even as a boy.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.