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Alumni Society: A Century of Supporting PC

The abundant spread at the OPC Weekend reception each May is always a crowd pleaser, but the carving station, raw bar, doughnut board and other innovations from recent dinners pale against the feast OPCs enjoyed in 1893.

The second annual meeting of the Penn Charter Alumni Society was held on April 22, 1893, at the Hotel Stenton at Broad and Spruce Streets, which was heavily decorated in blue and yellow for the occasion. The menu included little neck clams, “consommé printaniere royale,” perch, sweetbreads with truffles, fillet of beef “larded with mushrooms,” and quails on toast. According to the evening’s program, glasses were raised to the alumni, the faculty, athletics, and both the “old” (pre-1875) and “new” schools.

Speeches and toasts were all well and good, but then, as perhaps now, hungry alums wanted to get to the food. “Soon the meeting adjourned to the dining-room, to attend to the business for which it had been summoned,” the May 1893 issue of Penn Charter Magazine related, “and to prove that in the dining-hall as in the field Penn Charter never quails in the presence of the foe, no matter whether the subject for consideration is an ancient rival in sports or a hale and hearty menu.”

OPC Forever

Today the Alumni Society comprises every Penn Charter graduate, a group of more than 5,200 men and women in 49 states (all except North Dakota) and around the world. In ways large and small, it provides a critical link between graduates and their alma mater and varied opportunities throughout the year for fun, fellowship and service.

“I think that is one thing the Alumni Society tries to foster,” said Chelsea Erdmanis Greenspon OPC ’02. “You don’t just graduate from Penn Charter and move on, but you are part of this community, and giving back to the current student body is important.”

Rob Frieman OPC ’87, the current Alumni Society president, agreed. “It doesn’t matter what year you came. On that day in June when you get your diploma, you’re an OPC and you’re an OPC forever. The Alumni Society provides an opportunity for those who want to dedicate a little more time and stay involved with the school.”

From the Bert Linton Golf Outing to the Downtown Reception, the Alumni Society works closely with the Development Office on many of the activities that fill the school calendar. Furthermore, the Penn Charter Alumni Society Trust, established in 1936, enables the Alumni Society to provide timely and generous gifts to support the school. Between 2000 and 2019, Alumni Society giving to PC totaled more than $607,000.

“The growth and stewardship of the trust, and the opportunity to make strategic gifts to the school where needed is terrific,” said Chief Development Officer Jack Rogers Hon. 1689. “OPCs are the biggest source of gifts for the school, and the Alumni Society support is consistent with that.”

The Alumni Society Trust is invested independently but follows an investment strategy similar to that used by Overseers for Penn Charter’s endowment. The trust has grown from an initial endowment of $643.61 in 1936 to more than $700,000 today. Each year, directors of the Alumni Society meet to discuss and reach consensus on the initiative they will support with that year’s gift. In the past two decades, with gifts ranging from $1,000 to $100,000, the trust has supported the Penn Charter Annual Fund, professional development for teachers, financial aid, the Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts, and athletic fields. For Great Day to Be a Quaker recently, the Alumni Society not only provided a $10,000 matching donation to support faculty and staff, but organized receptions in the morning, to explain the day’s importance to parents, and evening, to keep OPCs engaged.

The Alumni Society’s work, in fact, is literally built into the school. The bell tower is dedicated to Judge Charles McKeehan OPC 1893, the society’s first president. The walls of the Meeting Room are lined with the names of recipients of two awards the Alumni Society presents each year: the Alumni Senior Award (begun in 1934), given to a distinguished member of the graduating class, and the Alumni Award of Merit (begun in 1947), given to a distinguished OPC. The Alumni Society also approves recommendations for recipients of the John F. Gummere Distinguished Teacher Award and new members of the Honorary Class of 1689. The OPC Vision Award, created two years ago, recognizes younger alumni who are beginning to make a difference in their field.

Flashback to 1892

The Alumni Society was founded on March 5, 1892, after much anticipation. “At last it does seem as though there was going to be a Penn Charter Alumni Association!” Penn Charter Magazine enthused that month. “How long has this name been only a myth! How often has it been spoken of and planned and then given up!”

Today the alumni and the school work so closely together that it is hard to imagine it was ever otherwise, but for several decades the two kept each other at arm’s length. In his book Old Penn Charter, John F. Gummere OPC 1918 wrote that headmaster Richard Mott Jones and most overseers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “neither needed nor wanted advice and help from alumni.”

The Alumni Society took its current form in 1934 when it adopted a new charter, which it operates under to this day.  When Gummere himself became headmaster in 1941 (the first and only OPC to hold the job in the modern era), he began inviting the president of the Alumni Society to brief the Overseers, and a rapprochement began. “This direct access to Overseers,” Gummere wrote, “developed a realization of what they did and an understanding of their service to the School; these meetings brought a sense of sharing and an opportunity to exchange ideas to both groups.”

That exchange of ideas between the school and its alumni continues. Today, Head of School Darryl J. Ford Hon. 1689 invites the alumni director to meet and have dinner with Overseers, creating an opportunity to exchange ideas, hopes and concerns.

New events are being added all the time. OPC receptions are held around the country, and a monthly online newsletter, OPC Spirit, helps graduates keep up with the latest news. In recent years, there has been a particular focus on inclusion, with more women, alumni of color, and younger alumni added to the Alumni Society board.

Rob Frieman OPC ‘87, in the middle of a two-year term as president of the Alumni Society.

Alumni at any stage of their careers can find an activity that engages them. Frieman was initially drawn to service. Shortly after college, he joined a group of OPCs who were going to the St. Francis Inn ministries in Kensington to feed the homeless. “I had done that as a student when the service component was new,” Frieman recalled. “I wanted to find ways to volunteer my time.”  The society now works with PC’s Center for Public Purpose on a number of initiatives, including Lower School pen pals, guest speakers to Upper School classes, and prize money for the Quake Makers Social Entrepreneurship Club.

Greenspon joked that she had no choice but to stay involved, having grown up on campus with her father, Val Erdmanis Hon. 1689, now retired from a long career as a PC teacher and coach. “Penn Charter was so important to me,” she said. “It really shaped me and who I was. So once I was done with college and my master’s program and things had settled down, I wanted to get involved with the Alumni Society and find a way to give back to current students, to make sure that others were having the same great experience that I had.”

Nearly 130 years after the Alumni Society was founded, almost everything about Penn Charter has changed: the location, the building, the student body, the curriculum. Goodness knows, the menus for alumni gatherings have changed.

Reread that account of the 1893 alumni dinner—broadening the language to include women—and it seems much more familiar.

“They talked over old times, and many a laugh told that the old jokes were not forgotten, and that the old nicknames stick as close as the brothers who gave and wore them.” The alumni gathered, Penn Charter Magazine said, “to renew old friendships, talk over old Penn Charter days, and do justice to the viands the energetic committee had prepared for them.”

That still sounds about right.