Tower Hill School Looks to the Past and Future as It Celebrates Centennial

Long known as an academic institution for Delaware’s white upper class, this Wilmington school’s face has changed significantly.

Matt Twyman, head of admissions and alumni relations at Tower Hill School, with his children (from left) Colby, Bryce and Xavier, all who attend Tower Hill’s lower school./Photo by Joe del Tufo

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It’s impossible to avoid talking about legacies as Tower Hill School celebrates its century milestone this month. They’re integral to the school’s origins—and its future.

When Benjamin Franklin du Pont Jr. enters the school each morning, the senior strides through a lobby where portraits of his great-great-grandfather and his great-grandfather hang: Lammot du Pont II, one of the school’s 11 founders, and his son, Pierre S. du Pont III, a 1929 graduate and longtime chair of the school’s board of trustees.

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His family ties to the school aren’t something he thinks about often, he admits. “Maybe after I graduate, I’ll step back. … That might be kind of cool,” he says.

There’s no denying the du Pont legacy at Tower Hill, whose campus covers 44 acres just below Rockford Park on Wilmington’s western edge. Eight founders were family members or in-laws; the other three were close friends or business associates. Ben du Pont Jr. represents the fifth generation of his family tied to Tower Hill. His father, Ben Sr., and his grandfather, Pierre S. IV, the former governor of Delaware, started at Tower Hill’s Lower School, though they finished their high school careers elsewhere.

Ben Sr. remembers his father telling him about riding his bike to school in the 1940s, skirting the edge of the Hagley Museum grounds along the way before having to push the two-wheeler uphill for the last 100 or so yards along Rising Sun Lane. “He loved it here,” du Pont Sr. says.

And, according to family legend, his grandfather, Pierre S. III, who played football back in the days of leather helmets, was part of a prank that involved “putting blocks of Limburger cheese on the heating coils of the school.” The stench, du Pont Sr. says, was apparently strong enough that classes had to be moved out of the building for a couple of days.

Then there’s the other legacy, the one that looks forward. Matt Twyman, a 1988 graduate whose three children also attend THS, handles dual roles in admissions and alumni relations. At the suggestion of his preschool teacher at a different school, Twyman was enrolled in the Tower Hill preschool in 1974. His father’s cousin, Trudy Harris, was the second African-American to graduate from the school.

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Matt Twyman—and his children—help Tower Hill look to the future./Photo by Joe del Tufo

Long perceived as an academic bastion for Delaware’s white upper crust, the school’s face has changed significantly, and Twyman shares the responsibility for ensuring that such change continues.

Students of color now account for one-third of the enrollment at THS, which did not admit an African-American student until 1966.

“By putting me in the admissions office, you can disarm people,” he says. Minority families “get rid of preconceived notions when they see someone who looks like [them].”

Head of School Bessie Speers, now starting her fifth year, speaks often about wanting THS to be “of Wilmington and of the world.”

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The “of the world” part comes easily, with alumni like Senator Chris Coons, former DuPont Co. CEO Ellen Kullman, TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz and Deputy Executive Secretary of State Elizabeth Noseworthy Fitzsimmons.

Bursting that bubble of affluence to truly become “of Wilmington” has been more of a challenge, but Tower Hill students now tutor and mentor younger students at area Boys & Girls Clubs; partnerships have been developed with Serviam Girls Academy and Nativity Prep, tuition-free private middle schools that serve low-income students; a summer outreach program brings low-income students to the campus; and Tower Hill is participating in the APEX program, which aims to steer honor students at Eastside Charter School toward enrolling at academically challenging private schools. One-third of the student body receives need-based financial aid.

“I don’t know where it will lead, but we’re committed to moving Tower Hill in that direction,” Speers says.

In describing the new school’s curriculum in 1919, the founders stated that “the work is progressive from start to finish,” and Tower Hill has strived to remain ahead of the curve academically.

Twyman learned enough about computers in the late 1980s to feel better prepared than many of his classmates at the University of Pittsburgh. Ben du Pont Sr., now a trustee, says, “We’ve always pushed the edge on innovative things.”

Son Ben Jr. agrees, pointing to a new outdoor classroom for the Lower School, the glass-ceilinged inner courtyard now nearing completion and the chance to learn about beekeeping—“something I normally wouldn’t have done”—during the one-week spring project program called Tower Term.

“Schools, unlike people, can live another 100 years,” Speers says. “That’s the exciting part—being able to usher in another century.”

Tower Hill will celebrate its Centennial Weekend Sept. 20–21. Events include a reception and an Artists and Authors Exhibit on Friday, and a convocation, football game and gala celebration on Saturday.

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