In jubilation yesterday, they celebrated with glasses of sparkling cider at the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades.
No wonder. Its president had just announced that the tiny private trade school outside Media - enrollment 250 - would receive a whopping $45 million donation from two of the region's most generous philanthropic couples.
Sparkling cider? Williamson has a strict no-drinking policy, enforced with random Breathalyzer tests - part of a policy to build character while building skills in carpentry, power-plant operation, turf maintenance, and machining.
Williamson's discipline and education, in fact, are what attracted the donors to the school, where tuition and room and board are free for the college-age students. They generally graduate after three years with an associate's degree.
The donations come from metals entrepreneur Henry Rowan and his wife, Lee, of Langhorne, Bucks County, and former cable television magnate H. FitzGerald "Gerry" Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, of Philadelphia.
"I think they are educating a unique group of people in a unique way," Henry Rowan said in an interview. "They take kids from limited finances and teach them a trade. They run a very highly disciplined environment, and they turn out some great people."
Here's what Rowan means by discipline:
Lights out at 10:30 p.m.
Daily morning chapel at 7:30 a.m.
Suit, tie and shined shoes to class; school work uniform for shop classes. Random drug testing. Dorm rooms inspection-ready at all times. Students clean dorm bathrooms, bus the dining room, sweep the porches and maintain the grounds - not for pay, but because it is the Williamson way.
If they are four minutes late for class, they have to work four extra hours over the weekend. Half an hour late? Eight hours of work are required.
"There's nothing better than that kind of discipline," Rowan said. "I think education is the most important endeavor in the world."
The Lenfests were unavailable for comment.
"This is the greatest thing that would have happened," said Wayne C. Watson, chairman of the board. "This will give us a chance to grow and live for the future."
School president Paul Reid described the gift as "transformational."
Reid said investment income from the school's endowment, which will reach $100 million at the end of the fund-raising campaign, will pay for two-thirds of the $6.5 million annual operating costs of the school.
The rest of the money is raised annually from donors.
The donation comes at an important time in the labor market. As baby boomers retire, there is an increasing shortage of skilled technical workers like those whom Williamson produces.
"The lack of skills is very severe in the U.S.A.," Rowan said. "You can't hire top-skilled individuals in machining and welding and in any of the trades. There's a terrible shortage of skilled people."
The size of the gift compared with the enrollment in the school stunned experts in philanthropy.
"Wow, that's really significant," said Rae Goldsmith, vice president for communications at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based group for educational fund-raisers.
"A gift that size to a trade school is going to be very rare," she said. "I just haven't heard of it before."
In fiscal 2007, while the stock market and economy were still strong, colleges and universities raised a record $29.8 billion, according to the Council for Aid to Education, which conducts an annual survey of educational giving. Giving at two-year colleges also rose to $250 million, up from $197 million the prior year.
The biggest recent educational donation in the region, announced in September, went to the George School, a private Quaker day and boarding school in Newtown, Bucks County, for grades six through 12. Barbara Dodd Anderson, a 1950 graduate, pledged $128 million.
The Williamson School, which boasts a significant collection of buildings designed by renowned architect Frank Furness, was founded in 1888 by Isaiah Vansant Williamson, a prominent Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist.
He believed, as Rowan does, that teaching a combination of skills and character creates excellent employers, employees, fathers, spouses and citizens.
"When I heard [about the gift], chills went up and down my spine," said Kevin Hatch, 21, who will graduate in May from the school's power-plant-technology program and will start immediately at a job paying him $75,000 a year plus full tuition reimbursement.
"I'm so happy for the school because of the future that it'll be able to have. More kids like myself will be able to benefit," said Hatch, whose father died when he was a teenager.
In December, Rowan had set up a $5 million challenge grant. Williamson approached the Lenfests, who had been previous donors, to help match Rowan's donation.
Instead, Gerry Lenfest issued a challenge to Rowan through Reid: Lenfest would put up $20 million if Rowan would match it.
The school already had a $50 million endowment. The $40 million from the couples, plus Rowan's initial $5 million grant, puts the school close to its goal of doubling its endowment.
Russell Harvey, Class of 1951 and faculty member, was overcome with emotion when he was asked to lead the school in the singing of the school's alma mater.
Harvey said the Class of 1951 had only 25 students. Times were tight, and the board had considered not having a class that year, but one benefactor was able to give enough money, at the time, for 25 students.
"I won't be here in 40 years," said Harvey, 77. "But this will be here."
Amount: $25 million.
Hometown: Langhorne, Bucks County.
How they made their money: Henry Rowan, 84, is the founder of Inductotherm Corp., of Rancocas, N.J.
Other famous gift:
$100 million in 1992
to Glassboro University to create an engineering school. Glassboro became Rowan University.
H. FitzGerald "Gerry" and Marguerite Lenfest
Amount: $20 million.
How they made their money: In 1974, Gerry Lenfest, now 78, spent $2.3 million to buy what became Suburban Cable. He sold it to Comcast Corp. in
2000 for more than
Other gifts (partial list):
$150 million, Lenfest Foundation.
$17.4 million, Philadelphia Museum
$15 million, Barnes Foundation.
$35 million in 2002 to Mercersburg Academy, a small boarding school attended by Lenfest.
$10 million to Teach for America, in December, through
the Lenfest Foundation.
SOURCES: Philadelphia Inquirer
and "The Million Dollar List," created by the Center on Philanthropy
at Indiana University