Bessie Spears is the first woman to serve as head of school at Tower Hill. / Photo by Jim Coarse
For the head of a prestigious private school, certain bons mots must be inserted in any extended conversation. Not only is there a requirement to “hold the bar high,” but one must also “celebrate our traditions,” all the while asking, “How can we justify our tuition?”
As the new head of Tower Hill School in Wilmington—and the first woman to hold that position—Bessie Speers says what might be expected of her.
But she’s far from straitlaced. Speers, after all, is a woman who graduated from college on skis and concluded her previous job, as head of the Ethel Walker School, a girls’ boarding school in Connecticut, by pedaling out of commencement exercises in full academic regalia on a brand-new bicycle.
“She’s a perfect fit,” says Barbara Landis Chase, a former Tower Hill trustee who first encountered Speers in 1980, when she was Bessie Cromwell, a junior at Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore, where Chase had just arrived as headmaster.
Indeed, from childhood, Speers’ interests, education and career arc seem to have guided her to Tower Hill. The daughter of a lawyer and a pastoral counselor, Speers saw her parents as models of civic engagement, and they made sure to send her to the right schools.
For the elementary grades, she went to the Calvert School, in Baltimore’s affluent Roland Park neighborhood. For high school, it was on to Bryn Mawr, founded as a feeder school to the Seven Sisters’ college on Philadelphia’s Main Line. There she would excel in athletics as well as academics, playing field hockey for four years, her last as captain.
“As a competitive athlete, she likes to win at whatever she does,” says another mentor, Hamilton Clark, former head of Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pa., and current head of the American School of Beirut. Clark first crossed paths with Speers in 1977, when he and his wife took jobs as head counselors at a summer camp on Martha’s Vineyard, where Speers had signed on as a junior counselor.
At Middlebury College in Vermont, Speers demonstrated some of the creativity and leadership that would be crucial to her career development. As a member of the tennis team, she ventured into fundraising and alumni relations, helping to arrange the team’s first spring training trip by soliciting funds from Middlebury graduates in California.
Because she had started at Middlebury in February, Speers was part of the February 1986 graduating class. Sitting in a dorm room one night, knitting ski caps with several friends, Speers and her classmates brainstormed an idea: Why not have commencement exercises at the college-owned Snow Bowl a few miles from campus and have the graduates schuss down the slopes in caps and gowns? Speers helped sell the idea to college administrators, starting a tradition that endures to this day.
After graduation she spent two years in Boston with the National Association for Independent Schools, a membership organization for private schools. “I got a fabulous view of independent education nationally,” Speers says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was just a gold mine for someone at a young age to see the spectrum of independent schools, what they need and why they matter.”
Before settling on a career in education, Speers worked as a tournament coordinator for an event management company and picked up some experience with nonprofits as a campaign division director for United Way of Massachusetts.
Her first teaching job came at Loomis Chaffee School, a coed boarding and day school in Windsor, Conn., were she taught English, coached tennis, ran the admissions office and supervised a dorm for two years. Then came a call from Chase, which took her back to Bryn Mawr as director of admissions. (Side duties included teaching English and coaching.) In her spare time, she earned a master’s degree in English at Johns Hopkins University.
After eight years at Bryn Mawr, Speers returned to the Calvert School for three years to help with placement, strategic planning and building a middle school before moving in 2003 to Episcopal Academy. There she served as assistant head of school and dean of faculty. And she made another important connection—with Earl Ball, then the head of William Penn Charter School, a private Quaker school in Philadelphia. Ball is now chairman of Tower Hill’s board of trustees.
In 2007, Speers was chosen as head of the Ethel Walker School, inheriting an operation that had a $2 million deficit and was four years shy of celebrating its centennial. Within two years, the budget was balanced and a capital campaign was under way. By the time Speers left, the campaign had raised nearly $50 million, and three new buildings had been built on campus.
“Bessie’s tenure was transformative,” says Christopher Brigham, a trustee of Ethel Walker and its legal counsel. He cites her open-door policy, her vision for the school and her success in re-establishing relationships with alumnae. “She brought the school continuity and stability that had previously been lacking.”
Having guided one school through its centennial, Speers is anticipating a similar celebration at Tower Hill, founded in 1919 by members of the du Pont family.
“Here’s a school that wants to take its future seriously and still wants to celebrate its past,” she says, “and I’ll feel like I’m 200 years old in 2019 after celebrating two centennials.” (Speers is only 52.) Says trustee Michelle Shepherd, who chaired the search committee, “She’s not content for us to be in this little bubble on 17th Street.”
Tower Hill’s “bubble” had burst in October 2013, when previous headmaster Christopher Wheeler resigned after police raided his on-campus home and seized computer equipment that contained graphic images of boys having sex with men. Wheeler is serving time at Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. Harry Baetjer, a longtime Tower Hill teacher and administrator, served as acting head of school until Speers took over on July 1. Baetjer’s leadership enabled the school to put Wheeler’s arrest behind it before Speers arrived, Shepherd says.
“There is no question that the school is ready to move forward,” Speers says, but she has not yet spelled out the details of that forward path.
“What we’re experiencing is a sea change,” Shepherd says. “It’s about all of us charting the course for the future.”
Speers’ primary goal for her first year is “to make Tower Hill a school of Wilmington and of the world.”
With its du Pont family heritage, its location on the city’s western edge and tuition that tops out around $27,000, Tower Hill has long been viewed as an educational enclave for Wilmington’s elite. The school’s academic rigor is undisputed, but its diversity is underpublicized. (About 25 percent of the 703 students are non-white, and more than $2 million in financial aid is allocated to 24 percent of the student body each year.)
“We have a unique opportunity here,” Speers says. “Our students can’t be learning in an ivory tower. We are within the city limits, and we need our students to understand that what is good for Wilmington is good for Tower Hill.”
Speers wants students to become part of the solution to the city’s problems, which means doing more than volunteering in a soup kitchen, collecting canned foods, or cheering the elderly at retirement homes and senior centers. “We need sustained partnerships” that build “a beneficial and reciprocal rapport for both Wilmington and Tower Hill,” she says.
How that plays out remains to be seen. Every day, Speers is learning more about the school and the city. She’s a Tower Hill parent, too: Her son Guthrie is a member of the centennial class.
“I keep trying to absorb some of the magic of the place,” she says—not only in the classrooms, but also as she rides her bicycle around campus.