Miss Jessie’s classroom was neat as a pin, and so was she, as she anticipated her students’ arrival. Her long, dark hair was arranged in a bun, and her neatly-ironed white shirtwaist and dark skirt had come from Baltimore by steamboat. The one room school house was just a little over a mile from her birthplace and still smelled like freshly-cut pine boards. Although the school was new and she was only 22 years old, she had already taught for four years in another county. She had enough experience to know what to expect when she opened the doors.
What Jessie Dew Ball could not have anticipated in 1906 was that she would have given away $100,000,000 dollars by the time of her death in 1970. We can all relate to a Cinderella story, but this tale is even more attractive because Cinderella was already an independent working woman and philanthropist when she married her prince charming, Alfred I. DuPont. It is said that she met him on one of his duck-hunting trips to the Northern Neck of Virginia.
When Jessie’s parents moved to San Diego California, she continued her teaching career there, eventually becoming vice-principal of the largest elementary school in the city. In addition to supporting her parents for the rest of their lives, she created and managed one hundred need-based scholarships, having invested some of her salary in the stock market and real estate.
Mrs. duPont’s biographer, Richard G. Hewlett, quotes her as saying “Early, I realized that love and knowledge were the only things of value. One being (I thought) forever denied me, I concentrated all my forces and efforts on the other.” This included generous donations to colleges and universities in later life.
I lived for nearly 20 years at what used to be called Hardings Wharf and drove past the old Shiloh School and north on Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Highway almost daily, but never took time to investigate the history behind the names and places. I have to confess that I imagined Jessie Ball as a wealthy young debutante marrying money. That was only one of my misconceptions about that remote rural area and its people. During my last year in Virginia, I became involved with the Wharton Films project, which aims to restore audio tapes and films from the Depression era. It exposed me to a wealth of personal stories that showed history as more than a collection of dust and dates. Although Miss Jessie had left the Northern Neck decades before those films were made, it is no coincidence that the organizations sponsoring their showings are beneficiaries of her generosity.
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