The Annenberg Effect: 25 Years Later

Photos Courtesy of The Peddie School

A Look Back at an Epochal Turning Point in One School’s History

Twenty-five years since Walter H. Annenberg bestowed his historic gift on Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., the school is an example of how philanthropy can transform a school — and how a school can transform thousands of lives as a result.

On Father’s Day, 1993, Annenberg gave $100 million to Peddie — along with $265 million to the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and Harvard University — as an endowed fund designed to expand financial aid, institute innovative programs, and recruit exceptional faculty. It was the largest cash gift ever given to an independent school, and it brought instant fame to Peddie.

Overnight, the school’s endowment catapulted from $17 million to $117 million. Applications soared. Students who previously had never considered Peddie because of financial circumstances were given an opportunity at a world-class education.

A quarter-century later, Peddie continues to see the transformative power of Annenberg’s generosity. Now one of the top independent boarding schools in the country, its students represent a wide range of geographic, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, adding a plurality of thought that spurs innovation.

When asked by The New York Times in June 1993 about his colossal gift to private education, Annenberg said: “I’m interested in the young people because the character of our country will be shaped by young people in the days ahead.”

Annenberg himself first arrived on the Peddie campus in 1921. He was a shy seventh-grade boy, with a bit of a stutter and hard of hearing in one ear.

Over six years at Peddie, he would transform into a confident man, make lifelong friends, and enjoy what he called “the happiest days of my life.”

Annenberg, known as a student as “Annie,” was voted by his classmates “best businessman” and “done most for Peddie” when he graduated in 1927. That same year, he made his first gift to the school, donating $17,000 for a new cinder track on the athletic field.

Annenberg’s father was a successful businessman who went from a newspaper street vendor to the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Daily Mirror, the Daily Racing Form and other magazines. Annenberg, the only son in a family with seven sisters, took over the family’s publishing company after graduating Peddie and attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He expanded the media empire, launching Seventeen magazine and TV Guide, which became the nation’s largest selling weekly magazine.

In 1969, he was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom.

During his entire adult life, Annenberg remained deeply involved with Peddie. He made numerous generous gifts and often visited the campus.

Headmaster Peter Quinn, who was director of admission at the time of the gift, said Annenberg believed his gift could make a difference to the school he loved.

“Ambassador Annenberg had always been generous, but the $100 million gift to our endowment was unlike anything he had ever done before both in size and purpose,” Quinn said. “The gift was precisely what we needed to fulfill our mission, and everyone knew it. This was the best gift he could have given us, and it was very much a forward-looking gift.”

Quinn said the gift continues to generate income for financial aid, faculty support, and program development. “Peddie is a school for the future: a student body united by excitement, curiosity, and character; an excellent teaching faculty distinguished by dedication, humor, and patience; an innovative program focused on personal growth and intellectual discovery,” he said.

Sangu Delle, co-founder of a venture capital firm that invests in entrepreneurial ventures in Africa, is grateful for the full scholarship he received from Peddie in 2002.  “The experience changed my life, and I am grateful to Ambassador Annenberg for playing a role in that,” said Delle, who Forbes magazine named one of Africa’s Top 30 Under 30.

Anne Seltzer, the school’s former director of development who is credited with shepherding the gift at the time, said she was assigned the task of researching what other schools had done with large gifts. A colleague at a college who had previously received a historic gift told her “you know, 25 years later it hasn’t made that much difference.” But Seltzer knew that Annenberg’s philanthropy could change Peddie and change lives.

“We began to think differently about Walter’s proposal, and we decided to ask the ambassador to restrict the gift for financial aid. It seemed to us that promising broader access to a Peddie education through financial assistance would fit the mission of the school and, in the long run, would be transformative,” Seltzer said. “It was the smartest thing we ever did.”