Bill Witkin

Year of Graduation: 
Bill Witkin

“I give to Exeter because I want to help kids receive scholarships. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Bill Witkin has witnessed a lot of history since graduating from the Academy in 1939: World War II, the space race, the fight for civil rights, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11. Although much has changed over the years, one thing has not — Witkin’s support of Exeter.

Inspired by his family’s philanthropy and a desire to offer the Exeter experience to those less fortunate, Witkin, who celebrates his 100th birthday on December 15, is the Academy’s longest-running since-grad donor. He has donated to the Academy for 83 consecutive years, even while serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Witkin chaired The Exeter Fund committee in the mid-1980s, then later became involved with the school’s planned and capital giving efforts; and he continues to be an enthusiastic donor. “Many students can’t afford Exeter,” he says. “I believe supporting their education and donating to the school are worthwhile.” Giving to the Academy, he notes, “has been a lifelong habit.”

Witkin grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the Great Depression. His father, Isaac, was a commodities trader who founded the New York Cocoa Exchange in 1925, and then his own cocoa importing business, the General Cocoa Company, in 1926. Although Witkin’s childhood was comfortable, his father, the son of immigrants, grew up poor in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, he attended Harvard on a scholarship and later was a consistent donor to that school. “I learned the importance of charitable giving from him,” Witkin says.

He also learned the importance of a good education. Witkin followed his older brother Richard ’35 to Exeter and then enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1939, just as the United States was entering World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor during his junior year, Witkin graduated early and joined the Air Force. He became a B-24 bomber pilot, flying combat missions out of Italy, as had his brother. He characterizes his own experience as much less dangerous than Richard’s: “My planes were hit by flak from the ground but never took on a German fighter in the air.” Witkin did have the great misfortune of losing his best friend, Dana Reed, a pilot in his squadron whose plane was apparently shot down during one of their missions.

One of Witkin’s greatest takeaways from his military experience is a belief that war doesn’t accomplish anything. “Killing people doesn’t make sense,” he says. “You don’t kill someone because you don’t agree with them. I think we’re better off living by the Golden Rule, to be kind to your neighbor and treat them as you would be treated.”

Newscasters called veterans returning from the war “the greatest generation,” but Witkin says they were actually “the luckiest generation,” because the GI Bill supported them to pursue further education.

After the war, Witkin, who admits to being embarrassed that he didn’t get into Harvard as an undergraduate as had his father and brother, received his MBA from Harvard Business School. After graduation, he worked for Mack Trucks, and later joined General Cocoa, where he remained until his retirement in 1975.

Several years later, he participated in his first Exeter Annual Fund phone-a-thon in New York City, calling alumni and soliciting donations. It turned out that he was good at it. “Joan, my wife of 63 years, tells me it’s because I’m friendly, but one thing that’s made me a successful fundraiser is not being afraid to ask people for money and to just keep doing this until they are convinced.”

Witkin, who was named class agent for the Class of ’39 and class president at his 55th Exeter reunion, is noted for his warmth and his personal letters to classmates and alumni. After stepping down as chair of the Annual Fund, he raised capital gifts (and goodwill) for Exeter during fundraising trips to Florida and Arizona with Associate Director of Development Woodie Haskins. Witkin received the Founders’ Day Award in 1995. “I wasn’t a big shot at Exeter,” he says. “I was more involved after I left than when I was as a student.”

As he enters his 10th decade, Witkin has slowed down a bit (he attributes his longevity in part to mindful breathing and positive thinking), but is every bit as eager to continue his family’s philanthropic legacy, especially if it creates opportunities for those less fortunate. “Charitable giving comes naturally to me and I’m lucky to be able to do it,” he says. “I give to Exeter because I want to help kids receive scholarships. It’s just the right thing to do.”

— Debbie Kane

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.