Tribute: Remembering the Life & Legacy of Irénée du Pont Jr.

Featured photo by Jim Graham

Following the recent passing of Irénée du Pont Jr. in January, one writer reflects on the local icon’s legacy in the region.

From the time I was very young, I can remember looking up from Smith’s Bridge as we traveled home and seeing a light burning in the house at the top of the far hill. On the morning of Jan. 16, 2023, one of the brightest lights went out at that home near Centreville, Delaware. It had shone for 103 years.

Irénée du Pont Jr. was born in 1920 to Irénée and Irene Sophie du Pont. He was the youngest of nine children and the only boy. In 1921, his father acquired more than 500 acres overlooking the Brandywine Valley. With former MIT classmate Albert H. Spahr, the senior du Pont designed the family home known as Granogue. The house overlooked Granogue Station on Henry A. du Pont’s railroad.

Du Pont
Irénée du Pont Jr. in his prized 1918 Cadillac. Photo by Jim Graham.

The new home on the hill was covered with Pennsylvania granite. The floors were reinforced concrete covered in teak; walls were paneled in oak carved by the American Car and Foundry Company, and metal craftsman Samuel Yellin fabricated the iron hardware. There’s a garage on the property that could accommodate 12 automobiles, while the basement housed a chemical lab and milk-testing facility for the estate’s dairy operations. The matron of Granogue laid out the gardens with DuPont engineer Albert E. S. Hall. Now that du Pont is gone, Longwood Gardens is purchasing Granogue and will keep the property as open space.

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“I remember the view. It went on and on,” du Pont told me. “On a clear day, you could see to Downingtown. There were no trees as there are today. It was all open farmland.”

Given the family nickname Brip, du Pont graduated from the Tower Hill School his father helped found. He attended Dartmouth College, studying chemistry. His sophomore year, he spent $40 on a 1918 Cadillac found in a salvage yard. “I was working on that Cadillac one autumn afternoon when I realized I didn’t like chemistry,” du Pont once said. “That changed my life.”

Brip transferred to MIT and took up mechanical engineering. He graduated in 1943 and was hired three years later by Nathaniel C. Wyeth, the elder brother of Andrew, to work for DuPont. He made his way through the company’s leadership ranks, serving in a variety of positions before retiring in 1978. His served on DuPont’s board of directors until 1990. When asked about running the family business, he replied with his typical wit: “I, as a stockholder, would’ve objected to me as president.”

Brip loved cars, filling his garage with vintage automobiles and motorcycles. In a movie short made of him with his motorcycle at Granogue, he rides through the halls of the home, pulls up to the camera and says, “My mother told me to always wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle, but she also said to never wear a hat in the house.”

Du Pont at Widener University's
Du Pont at Widener University’s president’s dinner in 2010. Photo by Jim Graham.

Brip was known for driving a cream-colored Chevette and going to his club’s Tuesday dinner and ordering a hot dog. One reporter noted du Pont’s exuberance in showing him that his sports coat had come from Value City rather than Brooks Brothers. He frequently brought his Cadillac and Oldsmobile to various events, including Point-to-Point at Winterthur.

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Winterthur had belonged to his cousin, Henry Francis du Pont, so his connection to the property was long-standing. He and his family—including Barbara, his wife of 77 years—were a staple at the races. When Winterthur started lifetime rights ownership of tailgate parking spaces over 20 years ago, du Pont purchased space number one. Without fail, every March 1, when sales started, he’d arrive in his Chevette with his Point-to-Point letter in one hand and a checkbook in the other. “It became an annual tradition,” says race director Jill Abbott. “His visit energized me every year. We knew Point-to-Point was right around the corner when he showed up.”

du Pont Oldsmobile
Grandson John Light and family arrive in du Pont’s 1936 Oldsmobile at a recent Winterthur Point-to-Point. Courtesy Bob Hickok Photography.

Brip would arrive at the event wearing his brown corduroy blazer, and Abbott would attach that year’s pin. When he turned 100, the staff was ready with a birthday cake, a sash, a baseball cap and sunglasses in the shape of 100. Abbott has saved an extra Point-to-Point pin and will keep it on the mantle in memory of him.

Brip is survived by his daughter-in-law, Eugenie Collison du Pont, daughters Irene Light, Cynthia Tobias, Sally Quinn and Grace Engbring, 13 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. In 2019 article in Delaware’s Cape Gazette, du Pont was asked what he valued most. “That I was born into the human race—that I had a mother and a father for more than 40 years,” he replied. “For that, I’m most thankful. Their love. That’s the most important thing—love.”

Related: Looking Into the Past, Present and Future of du Pont in the First State

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