A Hub for Hands-On Learning

Lew Somers’s service to Penn Charter was carried out “in deep partnership” with his wife, Betty, according to former head of school Earl Ball. 

Lewis S. “Lew” Somers III OPC ’44 brought a lifelong curiosity for science to the medical technologies businesses he developed and managed throughout his career. He even had an academic grounding in the subject, earning a degree in physics from Williams College. But Somers chafed somewhat against conventional science education, according to his son John F. Somers OPC ’78. 

“He’d be the first to tell you he wasn’t a great academic. He was more of a hands-on guy. He loved to tinker.” 

So when he wasn’t busy running a successful medical device company and raising a family, Lew Somers could often be found fiddling with the elaborate miniature railroad he’d constructed in his basement, or building model aircraft. 

During vacations at the family’s lake house in Maine, he got a kick out of flying his radio-controlled seaplane, using the water as a runway; in the event of an unsuccessful touchdown, the young John Somers and his siblings would swim out into the lake to recover their father’s battered craft. “He called us his personal navy,” Somers said with a laugh. 

Lew Somers passed away in 2011, but his spirit of curiosity will live on in the science room of Penn Charter’s new lower school building, where students will encounter daily the kind of hands-on, self-directed learning he found so gratifying. Made possible through a gift from John and his wife, Kristin, the Lew Somers Science Room will serve as a hub for project-based learning (PBL), a method of student-led education that’s become a core feature of PC’s Lower School curriculum. PBL empowers children to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning through self-directed assignments, trial and error, and calculated risk-taking. Lower School teachers, trained in the pedagogy of PBL, help guide students and provide support after those inevitable crash landings. 

The new science room will also honor Somers’s outsized legacy at PC. As a board member of nearly 40 years, clerk for six, Somers helped envision and execute major developments in Penn Charter’s culture, curriculum and campus, from the emergence of coeducation to the construction of the Richard B. Fisher Middle School and David L. Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts. He broughtto his leadership at PC wisdom gained in his role as president of Extracorporeal Medical Specialties, later Harmac Medical Products. 

“Lew had a vision,” said Head of School Darryl J. Ford. “He was adamant that we dig a full basement under the Middle School because he wanted us to prepare for a future need. That basement now houses the IdeaLab.”

Chief Development Officer John T. Rogers remembers a story of Somers’ generosity. Midway through construction of the Kurtz Center, it looked as though it would be necessary to trim costs, and that meant eliminating the stage pit lift. Somers wouldn’t hear of it. “Lew said, ‘We need the stage lift, and I will cover half and you will call Dick Brown for the other half,’” Rogers recalled. Richard P. Brown Jr. OPC ’38, another key PC supporter, thought that was a great idea, and the Kurtz Center got its lift.

“I believe Lew Somers stands as one of the great board members in the modern history of Penn Charter,” said former head of school Earl J. Ball Hon. 1689. “He was a key figure in the life of the school for many decades. 

His observations from his business leadership were extraordinarily helpful to me, and his personal values helped me see clearly through challenging issues.”

John and Lew Somers on the lake in Maine with one of Lew’s seaplanes.

The Somers Science Room promises to be every bit as innovative as the teaching and learning taking place within its walls. John Somers, who has served as president and CEO of Harmac since 2000, understands better than most the importance of high-quality equipment, and that understanding has inspired his gift, too. “It will be great to bring in new technology that will allow students to be more creative,” he said.

Somers remembers how his father believed, “There isn’t just one right way to do anything,” and how this notion was reinforced through Lew’s extensive travels with his wife, Betty. According to Lew, it was less important how you did something and more important that you did something. It’s a lesson that John Somers took to heart, and one that PC’s lower schoolers will learn over and over again in their extraordinary new space. 

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