With a historic gift to endowment, William “Wilber” E. ’64W and Janet James honor Wilbraham & Monson Academy’s past and present, while paving the way for its future.
Strolling down the immaculate stone driveway of
the home of Wilber ’64W and Janet James in Rockport, Massachusetts, one’s eyes alight on a cluster of old-growth trees from which emerges ... a giant giraffe. The friendly-looking bronze sculpture is one of a number situated on the mid-20th century property and is a hint to the visitor of the personal and carefully curated art collection inside.
Wilber (spry, trim, sporting his signature mustache)
is, as always, eager to share the collection, to outline the history of each piece, to draw connections. He points to
an Ashcan School painting here, a Han Dynasty vase there. On one wall hangs a portrait by Gilbert Stuart—yes, that Gilbert Stuart—of Wilber’s distant relative. This is apropos given that Wilber and Janet’s art tells the story of their lives, individually and together, and because that story now includes a record-breaking gift, in the form of a $10 million unrestricted bequest, from the couple to Wilbraham & Monson Academy.
When it is eventually realized, the historic gift, which they have directed to unrestricted endowment, will strengthen the financial foundation of WMA while preserving the original tenets of diversity, public service
and achievement that both they and the Academy hold dear. Meanwhile, to support WMA’s current initiatives, the couple has made a significant gift to the Athenaeum project. “This
is a true vote of confidence in the school’s leadership and their vision for an institution that we feel is important, impactful and unique,” Wilber says candidly.
For Wilber, whose passion for his alma mater is palpable, making such a consequential gift to WMA has been a natural outgrow of his lifelong connection to the school and of
his and Janet’s belief in the unique value proposition of a
WMA education. There is, he acknowledges, a bit of irony in such outsize affection from a man who started out as a “shy, tiny kid.”
William “Wilber” Ellery James grew up on Cape Ann, on Boston’s storied North Shore. Perhaps imbued with some of
the spirit of the early settlers of that area, he was, he says, a scrappy child, defensive in part due to his slight stature and in part to learning difficulties that hindered him academically. For pre-prep, Wilber’s parents sent him to The Fessenden School
in West Newton, Massachusetts, and it was there that he first
learned about Wilbraham Academy, where the legendary W.
Gray Mattern Jr. was then serving as Headmaster. historic bequest.
during his time in the Peace Corps during the 1970s.
“We had an immediate connection,” Wilber says of his first meeting with Mattern. “That was true for many, many boys of that era. He saw us as something more than the nonconformists that we were. Gray and his wife, Ginnie, who remains a dear friend, ensured that Wilbraham was both our proving ground and our home.”
Indeed, through the rigorous instruction of the cadre of dedicated and adroit young teachers Mattern had hired, and under his watchful eye, Wilber and his cohorts blossomed.
“We learned grammar, manners, how to study, how to dress, the importance of public service, and especially of loyalty, friendship and teamwork,” he recalls affectionately. “In that crucible, our motley crew became a band of brothers and left with a sense of purpose, camaraderie and pride. To this day, I remain very close to many members of my class, who have gone on to become captains of industry, carpenters, artists, musicians, teachers, and even a minister of defense and a deputy prime minister.”
The Academy’s strong focus on altruism and its pioneering role as an international school, in particular, resonated with Wilber, who would go on to graduate from Colorado College with a degree in history before spending three years in Kenya with the Peace Corps.
“My first meaningful exposure to non-Americans came at Wilbraham,” he explains. “When I was there, we had students
from Thailand, Congo, Austria, England, Switzerland and Honduras, among others. That global milieu, coupled with the sense of service that Wilbraham instilled from Day One, really propelled me into the Peace Corps. In fact, I trace my lifelong fascination with all things international directly to my student experience at Wilbraham.”
Diverted from his original Peace Corps destination of Libya by Muammar al-Gaddafi’s 1969 coup d’état, Wilber eventually landed in the semi-arid Eastern Province of Kenya, where
he began his remarkable three-year odyssey with the country’s Watharaka tribe. Not content merely to teach, Wilber