On a recent visit with Wilber ’64W and Janet James at their Rockport, Massachusetts, home, and on receiving a compliment for the work they have done on it, Wilber responded “none of us actually own anything; we are simply caretakers.” I was struck in the moment by the simplicity and truth of this statement, and thought to myself . . . absolutely right. Everything we have will someday belong to someone else, one way or another.
I think the reason this statement had such an immediate and visceral impact on me is because of its particular relevance to the concept of WMA as an independent school, a topic which was fresh on my mind only weeks after Commencement. You see, every year when Steph and I are having dinner at our house with groups of seniors, the topic of becoming alumni naturally comes up. Seniors are in the midst of that transition, so their curiosity often leads to questions like — What do the Trustees do? What role do alumni play? Who owns the endowment? As I answer these questions for them, it is often difficult for them to wrap their heads around the fact that no one actually owns the school. I will tell them that the Board governs the school and hires the Head, who runs the school, and that the Board is self-perpetuating from the body of alumni and parents . . . but, that the Board does not own the Academy. I will explain that the endowment is essentially a savings account for the school from which interest supports the annual operating budget and buoys the school in turbulent times but, that the endowment does not belong to anyone.
I tell them that if anyone could be considered, even figuratively, to own the Academy, it would be the collective alumni from which this system emerges. And then I watch their eyes sparkle as I tell them that they, once they become alumni, will join in the ownership of their alma mater. This is always a fun and fruitful talk, and it is exciting to witness the change that comes over them as they see the Academy and their role in it in a whole new light.
The real answer, though, and I will be revising my responses to the student’s questions going forward, is that the students, upon becoming alumni, become the caretakers of WMA . . . just as Wilber James indicated in his comment.
Being a caretaker, loosely defined, is to provide for the well-being of someone or something. This is done for WMA every day through the actions of many people. The faculty and staff pour their heart and soul into creating the WMA community and providing a program for our students, which serves them well and makes you proud. Alumni continue to interact and contribute in so many ways, making the Academy a philanthropic priority, spreading the good news of what we do here through word-of-mouth and directly engaging through receptions, social media, reunions and the like. The Board steers the ship with a steady fiduciary hand, eyes always on the horizon, and fulfills their volunteer responsibilities with the highest degree of seriousness and commitment.
There is no doubt that these are examples of caretaking in its finest form, all for the health and longevity of the Academy. Recently, however, and there is a BIG surprise for you in this magazine, there has been a series of extraordinary caretaking actions that extend beyond the days of our individual lives in the form of bequests, or making the Academy a beneficiary in estate plans. Two recent and significant examples among many, some communicated and some not, are the $2 million Peters bequest (which initiated the Athenaeum project) and the $7.5 million Jim ’50W and Pat LaCrosse bequest to endowment. These thoughtful acts of caretaking and stewardship, and all those like them of any size, are the epitome of what it means to take care of WMA and secure its health and longevity long beyond our days . . . because “none of us actually own anything; we are simply caretakers.” Through stewardship like this, we will move WMA forward with confidence in those who will “own” it next.
Brian P. Easler
Head of School