Delaware Valley College gets largest gift in its history

20100912_inq_warwick12-c
Elizabeth H. Gemmill, head of the Warwick Foundation, and college President Joseph S. Brosnan hold a portrait of Kenneth and Helen Gemmill, who established the foundation.

Kenneth W. Gemmill, a quintessential Philadelphia lawyer, built a small fortune during a distinguished career that included service in the Eisenhower administration, a partnership in a prestigious city firm, and authorship of the national tax code.

And, long before it was fashionable, he and his wife, Helen, an achiever in her own right, set out to create a legacy of giving through a family foundation they established in 1961.

Now, heirs have chosen to honor the couple, who died in 1998, by bequeathing the bulk of the foundation's holdings - $29.6 million, including a 398-acre Bucks County family farm - to Delaware Valley College in Doylestown.

The gift is the largest in the school's history.

The farm, valued at $14.6 million, will nearly double the school's acreage, offering room for growth and a natural laboratory for agricultural and environmental programs. The farm, in Warwick Township, is about a 13-minute drive from Delaware Valley's main campus.

The foundation's gift comes with a $10 million endowment to maintain the farm, which will become the Gemmill Campus.

The final $5 million will go toward Delaware Valley's goal of becoming a university.

"We just thought this was a happy marriage of my parents' love of Bucks County and my father's belief in the importance of education," said Elizabeth H. Gemmill, chairwoman of the Warwick Foundation and the only surviving child of the Gemmills.

As envisioned by Delaware Valley's president, Joseph S. Brosnan, the "transformative gift" will help the institution shed its outdated reputation as a small agricultural school.

"It is misunderstood in many ways," Brosnan said of the school, widely known as Del Val. "It has been seen as that little farm school in Doylestown, when, in fact, it changed 50 years ago. We've added business management, chemistry, biology, biotech. . . . Clearly, we have to reposition the college."

Brosnan's plan for doing that - adding curriculum and study areas to achieve university status - found a receptive audience among the Warwick Foundation's board, which is made up of the Gemmills' progeny.

"The stars came together in terms of Del Val's strategic plan and the foundation," Elizabeth Gemmill said.

Del Val, a private school with about 2,000 students, had long held a special place for Kenneth Gemmill, who served on its board for 11 years and as chairman for six.

"There is no doubt he would have been pleased," his daughter said of the foundation's gift.

Kenneth Gemmill grew up in Ivyland, where his father served as a Presbyterian minister. He went to Mercersburg Academy and then Princeton University, both on full scholarships. He earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

A tax attorney, Gemmill was assistant secretary of the Treasury under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gemmill was the principal author of the 1954 tax code, which was in use until 1986. In the 1970s, he was tax adviser to President Richard M. Nixon. He was a partner at the law firm Dechert Price & Rhoads, now know as Dechert L.L.P.

"He was a man of few words, but absolutely brilliant," recalled Ned Donoghue, a retired partner at Dechert whom Gemmill mentored. "He had the ability to take a complex heap of facts, numbers, and people's opinions and know exactly how it all fit together."

Gemmill's wife, Helen, was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College who worked for a time as an editor at Vogue magazine.

While a polished big-city lawyer, Gemmill never gave up his dream of country living and, in 1941, began acquiring the land that would eventually become the 398-acre "Five Spruce Farm" bequeathed to Del Val. The first 113 acres were purchased at $40 each, his daughter recalled.

The family moved to the farm from Philadelphia in 1956.

"My dad moved in amazing circles, but he was a farmer at heart," Elizabeth Gemmill said. "Dirt was in his soul."

About the time the family moved to the farm, Del Val was beginning its transformation from a strictly agricultural school to one that today offers 27 majors and three master's programs.

For the school to reach university status, Brosnan said, it must "have five master's programs and at least one doctoral program."

Brosnan's goal was to reach that point in three to four years. The Warwick Foundation gift offers a significant boost, he said. It also, he hopes, will trigger other large donors to step forward.

"This gift is going to change the institution permanently," he said.

Which, Elizabeth Gemmill believes, Kenneth Gemmill would have heartily approved.

"He would have admired the bold stroke of this," she said.


Contact staff writer Christopher K. Hepp at 215-854-2208 or chepp@phillynews.com.