Jay N. Whipple Jr.

Year of Graduation: 
Jay N. Whipple Jr. stands in front of the Academy Building at Exeter

How one alum's prized possession and piece of Exeter lore will be preserved for generations to come.

When Exeter’s new Center for Archives and Special Collections opens in the basement of the Class of 1945 Library in 2020, a chunky, 20-pound portable television with a three-inch screen will be among its prized artifacts. Produced by Pilot Radio Corporation in 1950, the treasured piece of Exeter nostalgia will be displayed alongside other rare objects from the library’s collections in a 700-square-foot, glass-fronted vault named for the set’s donor, the late Jay N. Whipple Jr. ’51. 

Much more than a historical relic from a bygone time, the television represents the Whipple family’s multigenerational connection to Exeter; an adolescent’s coming of age; and a unique man’s lifelong curiosity about science, electronics, technology and the future. 

How the TV originally got to Exeter is quite a tale. In 1951, returning from Christmas break, Whipple smuggled the set into his Peabody Hall dorm room in a duffel bag (televisions were forbidden at Exeter at the time). Whipple, his roommate Sabin Robbins ’51, and some friends were eager to watch a fight featuring legendary boxer Joe Louis. Unfortunately, the reception inside the dorm was lacking. Whipple knew the solution was to raise the TV’s antenna, but how? The enterprising senior had an idea: climb onto the roof of Peabody, hold the antenna and drop a lead-in wire down a chimney to the fireplace on their floor. The catch: “There were fireplaces on each floor and we had to figure out which chimney on the roof led to ours,” Whipple said in a family video recounting his adventure. 

So up Robbins and a friend clambered onto Peabody’s roof, into a frigid winter night. They dropped a stone down each chimney and listened for voices to tell them they had the right one. They succeeded on their third try. Robbins dropped down the wire and his classmates attached the antenna. Robbins, however, missed the fight. “I spent 30 minutes clinging onto the chimney with one hand and holding the antenna with the other,” Robbins said in his 2009 autobiography, "A Life of Fun, Romance and Wild Adventures". 

Exeter staff eventually learned about the television. Instead of it being banished, Whipple was allowed to set it up in the science building to use as the basis for a project. He took it with him upon graduation and added it to his burgeoning electronics collection. Years later, after recounting his adventures to Exeter staff, he donated the TV to the school.

Jay N. Whipple's television

Whipple’s youthful prank will be forever remembered in the new, climate-controlled vault, named in his honor through a generous gift by his family. Whipple learned of the gift during an emotional video conference with Principal Bill Rawson ’71, P’08, and librarian Gail Scanlon — just two days before Whipple passed away in September 2018 at age 85. “Jay II’s adventure is a fabulous story about being young and testing limits as well as the camaraderie that’s forged among Exeter students,” Scanlon says. “The family’s gift is a reflection of how deep Exeter connections go.” 

Whipple was the second generation of his family to attend Exeter — his father, Jay N. Whipple Sr. ’15 was an Exeter trustee and established the Jay N. Whipple Class of 1915 Teaching Fund. “Exeter is an integral part of our generational experience,” says son Jay N. Whipple III ’75. (Whipple’s son William C. Whipple ’81, as well as stepson Whitson McNulty ’78, and niece Myra Donnelley ’75, are also Exeter alumni.) Far more than an educational influence, Exeter shaped Whipple’s character. “When Dad first attended Exeter, he felt inadequate and vulnerable,” says daughter Betsy McKenna. “He believed that the school helped shape the person he became — adaptive, curious and resilient.”

Electronics, computers and outer space were among Whipple’s passions. As a child growing up in Lake Forest, Illinois, he loved tinkering with radios and crystal sets, imagining life on other planets. His childhood exploits became family legend. Foreshadowing his Exeter escapade, he cut a hole in his family home’s slate roof to hang out an antenna, hoping to get better reception for his favorite radio show, “Captain Midnight.” In an attempt to listen to “Superman,” he strung a thin wire from his parents’ radio to his bedroom. Once, while experimenting with his chemistry set, he inadvertently caused a small explosion. 

After Exeter, Whipple graduated from Yale University, earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and served in the U.S. Army. He later became a partner in his father’s Chicago-based investment firm, where he researched investment opportunities, always with an eye toward what was happening in the burgeoning technology industry. 

Whipple once recruited Jay III, a freshman studying computer science at Yale, to visit a Harvard student building a compiler for APL, a computer programming language. “Dad wanted to invest in what this student was doing,” remembers Jay III. “But I thought he [the student] was a little crazy.” Whipple continued to follow the Harvard student’s progress but, ultimately, didn’t invest in his work. The “crazy” student was Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. “Dad was a visionary,” says Jay III, who credits his father for inspiring his own tech industry career. “He had an intuitive sense that technology was going to be important.

”Whipple was a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan and also a lifetime member of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, where he served on the board of trustees (fittingly, the Adler is naming several new makerspaces after Whipple, recognizing his role as a “maker” long before the term became popular). Whipple amassed an extensive collection of antique radios, crystal sets and televisions and attended radio and electronics conferences around the country. He also collected futuristic paintings and illustrations by artist Chesley Bonestell, whose space art has been featured internationally in science fiction magazines, books and exhibits. 

Through it all, Whipple stayed connected to Exeter, attending reunions and chatting with old friends and teachers, as well as current students, curious to know what they were learning. A favorite annual ritual was watching a live stream of opening day assembly, often with tears in his eyes. 

Perhaps Whipple’s greatest legacy, embodied by the old Pilot portable television that will forever be associated with his name, is his ability to bring ideas and people together. “Exeter meant so very much to Dad,” McKenna says. “I think he’d say he wasn’t the smartest student or best athlete at Exeter. But he knew how to bring people together by making connections and generating energy around something of interest.”

— Debbie Kane