Board Chairman Wayne C. Watson’s
Founder’s Day Speech
Thursday, February 5, 2015
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, trustees, alumni, administration, faculty and staff, friends, and students. We are delighted that so many of you joined us this evening for this very special occasion—honoring our founder Isaiah V. Williamson. This is going to be a wonderful evening.
I’m sure you have heard that we are changing our name, but I want to emphasize that we are the same institution we have always been; nothing is changing but our name. We still are and will always be an educational institution that provides deserving young men with a free education in the trades while instilling in them the character traits of Faith, Integrity, Diligence, Excellence, and Service.
We are here this evening to honor the legacy of Isaiah Vansant Williamson, who, by the way, would be 212 years old if he were here with us tonight.
Throughout his life, Mr. Williamson showed us that we need to use our talents and our resources to do more than merely take care of ourselves — we need to help others as much as we can. Think about this for a moment, everyone in this room tonight has benefitted from our founder’s generosity and desire to help others.
As we all know, Mr. Williamson used his large fortune to help thousands of people. Most of his acts of generosity were done anonymously. Plaques honoring him can be seen around Philadelphia in parks and other places. And his greatest gift was the founding of this institution that bears his name.
I want to speak to you tonight about the vision Mr. Williamson had for his institution and some of the changes that have taken place over the years. These changes have taken our school to where we are today.
Mr. Williamson’s dream of founding a school began 30 years before it became a reality. After retiring from the business world with enough money to live comfortably the rest of his life, he spent several years in Europe. It was during this time that the dream of founding a school began to form in his mind.
While he was in Europe, he saw that the apprentice system was still in use and he lamented the fact that it was no longer in use in the United States. As you know, in the apprentice system an older person shares his knowledge and skill with a younger person so he can learn in a hands-on fashion. This was how Mr. Williamson got his start in the business world. He worked as an apprentice in a small general store. And, this is why our seniors are assigned to our freshmen.
After returning from Europe, he became an investor and was so successful that he became the richest man in Philadelphia. During this time, the vision for his school became clearer. He decided to create a school that would help deserving young men by giving them a free education in the trades.
When he signed the Deed of Trust on December 1, 1888, The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades became a reality.
Now, over 125 years later, his school still exists and is still following his wishes as laid out in the Deed of Trust. It always has and it always will.
The Deed of Trust states that the running of the school will be in the hands of the Board of Trustees. He put his trust in them to run his school as he envisioned it. The Deed clearly states his vision of what he wanted his school to be like, but he left the details up to the Board.
For example, he listed many possible trades that could be taught, but he left the selection up to the trustees. They also determined many other aspects of the school, always following the Deed as a guide.
One of the most important parts of the Deed was that it gave the trustees the responsibility and the power to make changes as they saw fit to keep the school up to date and relevant over the years. The goal always has been, ultimately, to ensure that graduates have the education and character traits necessary to find employment throughout their lifetimes and to live life as useful and respected members of society.
The school operated for a number of years with few changes. As I researched my remarks for tonight I learned a few things about the early days from looking at old yearbooks. One thing I never knew before was that when the school first began, every student had to spend six months in the carpentry shop before being assigned the trade of his choice. I’m sure Ken Nelson, our carpentry instructor, would enjoy having 100 students in his shop for six months. This system was dropped after several years.
There also was a time in the early years when every student had to spend one full year working on campus before beginning his trade studies. I don’t believe there is anyone here tonight who is old enough to remember this from first hand experience, but there were students who started each day cleaning out the cow barn, which is not the best way to begin a day. I’m sure our students in the audience this evening are pleased they don’t start each day cleaning up after cows.
Another system that has fallen by the wayside after being in use for many years, was the system in which every student spent two weeks in each shop to help him determine which shop was right for him. As the school grew in numbers, that system eventually faded away.
When the school first opened, it offered only four trades: Bricklaying, Carpentry, Machine Shop, and Patternmaking. Several years later, they added a program in Operating Engineering. It was called this until 1947 when they began calling it Power Plant Operating. I would like to point out that I graduated in 1948 and this is my shop and I was here when they changed the name. Today this program is referred to as Power Plant Technology. Again, changes were made to keep up with the times.
The trustees added agriculture as a new trade in 1912. The reasons why this was added are lost to history, but the trustees saw this as an important addition. In the late 1920s, they saw that this trade was losing its relevancy and decided to drop it. They didn’t want students learning a trade that did not lead to a life of good employment opportunities.
In the late 1930s, the trustees made another important decision — they dropped one of the trades that had been offered since the first day — patternmaking. This was done because the hand skills required in this trade were being replaced by modern technology. It had become an obsolete trade.
To replace this trade, the trustees made another decision — they added the painting trade and the first painting class graduated in 1940. For many years this trade was known as Decorating and the students in it referred to themselves as “Deckies.” I’m sure Glen Tomlinson, our painting instructor, who graduated in 1975, referred to himself as a deckie when he was a student. If he called himself that today his students would not know what he was talking about. By the 1970s the trustees decided that adding the structural coatings technology component to the trade would increase the employment opportunities for the painting graduates, which it did.
One of the biggest changes the trustees made began in 1961. Up until that time our students were of high school age and the curriculum emphasized the trades. However, with a rise in postsecondary education and significant advances in technology the trustees decided to become a postsecondary institution. Students were now required to have a high school diploma or GED. Programs were upgraded and in 1972 we began offering Associate in Specialized Technology Degrees along with Craftsman Diplomas. Again, this was done to keep things relevant and up to date. In 1888, Mr. Williamson could not have envisioned a time when his school would need to grant degrees. This was not necessary for employment opportunity in those old days. But times change and the trustees have ensured that we keep up with the times.
The next change came in 1992 when the horticulture, landscaping, and turf management program was added after the trustees saw there was a shortage of trained workers in these areas.
Mr. Williamson passed away in 1889, never living long enough to see his dream become a reality. But, he did live long enough to write the Deed of Trust which clearly states his vision. And since that time, the Board of Trustees have been working diligently to keep the school relevant and up to date and, most importantly, to keep our graduates employable. And they did this while not changing the mission of the school; all they did was keep the school up to date.
The school always has been and always will be dedicated to offering a free education in the trades and instilling in its students the core values of Faith, Integrity, Diligence, Excellence, and Service. The school always has and always will be proud of the young men who graduate from it and go out into the world as “Williamson Men.” Men with top notch trade skills and outstanding character traits.
We are now at another period of change in our school. A time of great historical significance that will make a great school even better. We are changing the name from The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades to Williamson College of the Trades with the tag line, “Building Craftsmen, Instilling Character.” We are not doing this just for the sake of change and we are not changing our mission. We are doing this because our new name will more clearly identify the true nature of our programs and curriculum and will portray our mission and tie our past with our future. We also feel very strongly that Isaiah Williamson would approve of this change if he were here today.
We will begin using the new name on July 1. The Class of 1W5, our seniors here with us tonight, will be the last class to graduate with The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades on their diploma.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen for being here with us tonight for this significant occasion in the history of this fine college that we all love so much.