When former Princeton professor and Salem City native son Forman Sinnickson Acton died two years ago at age 93, he was lauded as a technology pioneer, a gifted educator who could explain what others could barely comprehend. A private man of almost rakish charm, Acton was a world traveler, a circumspect bon vivant, a scholar whose love of learning went undimmed by the years.
In the life of the mind, he ranged wide and far. Acton was a contemporary of John Nash, along with some of math and engineering's other beautiful minds. He served in World War II and was tapped to work on the Manhattan Project. His handprints are on two of the 20th century's most defining innovations - the computer and the atomic bomb.
What was far less known, however, was that Acton, through wise investments, quietly amassed a fortune - more than $33 million.
Some of his money he donated to Princeton, his alma mater and employer.
But he also anonymously began funding scholarships for students in need. A bachelor, he confided to friends he wanted to help young people from his hometown - a small river city of about 5,000 that has known economically brighter days - to access the kind of educational opportunities that opened doors in his life.
And so, in the months after his death, the Forman S. Acton Educational Foundation was born. Its intent: to help Salem's children attain their scholastic dreams. A dispute, however, has arisen over its leadership and its goals. One thing is sure - his gift's great potential for generations of children.
On Monday, the foundation will announce an initiative meant to increase the possibility of college for all Salem children.
With an initial contribution of $275,000, the foundation has established the Acorn Fund to create college saving accounts for all Salem City students from pre-K to high school seniors. About 1,200 children will be able to enter the program this April.
"Like the acorn that became Salem's famous 600-year-old oak tree, we expect these investments to be the start families need to grow something great," said foundation president Kathryn Markovchick, daughter of J. Herbert Fithian, a lifelong friend of Acton and executor of his will.
Compared with the cost of college, these starter investments may seem modest - $50 for preschoolers to $1,000 for a high school senior. But early research by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis on another universal college savings program in Oklahoma, one of a limited number of states that fund such plans, has already found positive impacts on children and mothers.
But the Acorn Fund is only one Acton project. This year, the organization intends to spend more than $896,000 on various education programs, including $97,500 for scholarships.
"Forman wanted to do something for the town. He cared for the residents in the town," said Phisit Phisitthakorn, 80, an architect who lives in Thailand and was Acton's close friend and traveling companion for 40 years. "He wanted for the people to have more education, to have a better life."
Some in Salem, however, say Acton's fortune could do even more good. They object to his foundation's leadership and how the money is being spent.
The Salem City Board of Education has filed a lawsuit against the foundation, calling for Markovchick's removal from the board, as well as other leadership changes.
District Superintendent Amiot P. Michel along with parents of some of this year's highest-achieving seniors say the foundation's salaries - about $366,000 for four people - are too high and the scholarships being offered are too limited and too few.
"Why should the money not go to scholarships for kids who are deserving?" said Michel.
Rather than scholarships between $2,500 and $10,000 a year for seven of this year's 80-some graduates, plus continuing aid to 11 others, Michel called for substantially increasing the number and size of scholarships given.
The foundation, meanwhile, says it plans to eventually raise the amount spent annually on scholarships to about $200,000. It also defended its salaries as comparable to similar boards, as well as the programs it funds.
"Forman knew it's essential to support early education, which is why we have a number of programs supporting Salem children of all ages," said Markovchick, whose credentials include a Maine educational organization. She expressed hope for future cooperation.
Ultimately, the matter may be up to the courts.
What is not in dispute is the beneficent vision of this singular man, and the profound impact his gift can have on the young people of his hometown.
"No mistake about it," said Michael Gorman, president of Salem County College, which has an association with the foundation and high school. "This can change lives."
Acton's Salem was different from that of his young scholars. His was a childhood of big houses. Born Aug. 10, 1920, he was the only child of William Harker Acton, who worked for duPont, and Elizabeth Forman Sinnickson Acton.
Acton started out in the Salem City school district but privilege in time had him packing, off to prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
From there, Acton, a handsome young man with a mischievous grin, was bound for Princeton to study engineering.
It was there that he got his first taste of teaching.
In an interview for the Smithsonian Institution, Acton told of the time he asked Princeton's then-math chair when his department was going to teach math so engineers could understand it.
The chair gave the upstart a teaching job on the spot - starting in two weeks.
"I had never lectured in front of a class in my life and I went out of the office with my knees shaking," Acton said. "That's how I got into math. That's how I got into most things, sticking my head out at inappropriate times."
Acton wasn't only an academic. He was called to serve in World War II but didn't care for the infantry. His chemical-engineering background was his ace in the hole. It got him sent to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to work on what became known as the Manhattan Project, where nuclear weapons were developed.
He went on to get a doctorate in applied math - at the time, a rarity - from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and then back to Princeton, where he came to be known as a masterly instructor.
"Forman's whole life was about education," Fithian, his old friend, said. "He knew he could solve problems that other people couldn't solve, and he took great joy in helping other people solve those problems. He enjoyed the puzzle of helping other people learn."
He embraced differences and learning by experience. He loved travel, and acquaintances became lasting friends. Germany was a favorite. In the 1960s, he traveled to India to help set up a computer center. He ended up staying a year and was invited to return.
His dear friend Phisitthakorn said they met in Bangkok in the 1970s. Phisitthakorn said Acton loved the Thai food he cooked for him.
They traveled together. "We understood each other, and Forman was so kind to me," Phisitthakorn said. His friend, he said, did not seem to take note of color. "He cared about people."
Nor did he wear his wealth on his sleeve. "He wasn't the kind of person to show off, to show he had money," Phisitthakorn said.
He did enjoy the stock market, though. For decades, he conferred regularly with his broker at Janney Montgomery Scott. He took advice, but the astute Acton had investment ideas of his own.
"He was a brilliant man," said Scott Nash, an executive vice president.
"He was a very complex man," said Helen Acton, 71, a relative.
As age began to limit his senses, the two forged a special relationship.
"For four years I was his chauffeur. I was in the driver's seat," Helen Acton said, tooling his Volkswagen Beetle around where he needed to go.
"I learned so much from him by just keeping my mouth shut and his eyes open," she said.
Some things he didn't talk much about. His role in developing atomic weapons he would discuss - up to a point.
"He viewed it as a job that needed to be done," she said, but she believes he felt badly, too.
"He said, 'I never saw the results of Nagasaki.' I don't think he wanted to."
But he loved his time at his modest cabin on Woodmere Lake in Salem County. He would sit on the porch, a pencil in his mouth, writing, or walk around the house, holes in the elbows of his sweater, content.
When it was his time, his ashes were scattered outside the cabin. Loved ones toasted him with Riesling, a favorite from his beloved Mosel Valley.
In the brief time the Acton foundation has been around, Salem High School principal John Mulhorn said the scholarship seems to have fanned student interest in rigorous studies like AP classes and the International Baccalaurate program.
Madinah Thomas, 19, a finance and accounting major at Rowan University, had not yet even heard of Forman Acton when, as a graduating Salem High senior, she was awarded a scholarship funded anonymously by him.
"It has been such a blessing," said Thomas. "Without the money, I don't know how I would pay for school."
If she could, she would thank him.
"I'm thankful for him every day," she said. "I think what he did is wonderful for the town. It's giving the children a chance to go to college and for the people who are there a chance to reach their dreams."
Which is what Forman Acton wanted, after all.
Editor's Note: This story was revised to correct the location for the Center for Social Development. It is at Washington Univertsity in St. Louis, not George Washington University.