By his own account, Bill Kershaw’s “greatest joy and accomplishment in life was in improving the lives of young boys.”
When not teaching fifth graders, Kershaw took boys camping, canoeing, and on ski trips. He “loved introducing boys to the wonders of nature.”
After a long career at Philadelphia’s elite Chestnut Hill Academy and three other local private schools, Kershaw died a satisfied man, according to an obituary he drafted himself.
“Bill never married and was fulfilled by his teaching and his camp trips,” he wrote.
But even by the forgiving standard for obituaries, he left a lot out.
Kershaw didn’t mention that he quit teaching in Philadelphia only after his 1977 guilty plea to molesting two 11-year-old boys.
He didn’t reveal that he had lied to start teaching again out west and kept his past a secret to lead Boy Scout Troop 551 in rural Goldendale, Wash.
Nor did he disclose that during a 1955 trip run by Wilderness Travel Camp of Philadelphia, a company he co-owned, seven boys were killed by an avalanche while trying to climb an 11,600-foot mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Two victims were 13-year-old twins enrolled at Chestnut Hill Academy, and their parents sued Kershaw and a business partner for negligently permitting the boys to climb a treacherous peak without an adult along — with some shod in nothing more than baseball spikes.
The full story of the life of William E. Kershaw Jr., who died in 2015 at age 91, is being told now because several of his victims, for the first time, have shared their accounts. His story paints a disturbing portrait of how a determined sexual predator can keep in contact with children and evade a system of background checks that critics say remains flawed today.
The four private schools that employed him have taken different approaches to a vexing, present-day issue: whether to inform alums about his past and what the school knew and when.
Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, as the school is named now, has been unsettled by recent accounts from decades past of sexual abuse by two other faculty members, Frank Thomson and Michael Clifford.
Now two former students at Chestnut Hill Academy have come forward to say Kershaw sexually abused them while they were enrolled there decades ago. A third former student, Steven Kampmann, says he believes abuse by Kershaw fueled psychological problems that prompted an older brother to refuse to return to Chestnut Hill Academy after fifth grade and eventually commit suicide.
Kershaw left the school in 1966 “after an incident with one of the students,” a Kershaw relative now says. School officials say they can’t say why he departed after 16 years on the job. But the school, when pressed, did find a curious letter in its files, apparently written by the headmaster.
On the one hand, the letter said: “It is with regret that I accepted Mr. Kershaw’s resignation. It is always difficult to replace faculty, but it is doubly so when the person has proven successful in the classroom.”
On the other, it said Kershaw had left for unspecified “personal and health reasons” and it warned, “I believe it essential for any prospective employer to review the nature of these reasons with the candidate prior to employing him.”
If the aim was to warn, it didn’t work. Kershaw went on to teach at three more area private schools before his guilty plea: the Meadowbrook School in Abington, Frankford Friends, and Greene Street Friends. He was finally fired from his last position after his 1976 arrest.
Kampmann has urged the school to dig into Kershaw’s past and reveal the depth of his damage. He and some other graduates say it is important for schools such as Springside Chestnut Hill Academy to investigate misconduct and to disclose their findings. They call this an important step to end victims' isolation and to help them heal.
“It is in the school’s interest to clear the closet completely of any ghosts,” Kampmann said. “It shows the power of this crime that, 50 years later, schools continue to shy away from total, 100 percent honesty.”
The school says it is unaware of any abuse cases involving Kershaw and its students. Stephen Druggan, the headmaster, stressed that today’s school is adamant about keeping students safe and zealously follows laws requiring reporting of misconduct. The school has urged any alumni with concerns to come forward.
While Chestnut Hill Academy has been reluctant in the past to communicate with alumni about Kershaw, it sent them an email message Thursday night saying that the Inquirer was preparing this article on him.
The school’s alert comes after the leaders of both Friends schools recently sent messages to graduates recounting Kershaw’s conviction.
Edward Marshall, the head of Greene Street Friends School since 1995, said he sent out his message because “I feel our responsibility to our kids. Now, 10 years ago, 40 years ago, they’re all our kids.”
Bill Kershaw had the perfect lineage to thrive in the world of exclusive private schools. His grandfather was headmaster of Germantown Academy for nearly 40 years, his father a corporate scientist who raised Bill and older sister Meg in Gwynedd Valley.
Advantages aside, Kershaw may have had a painful upbringing. Kershaw’s father was withdrawn, a heavy drinker, and jealous of the younger Kershaw’s close relationship with his mother, his niece said.
His father stunned Kershaw at 12 by surprising him with a bike – and then driving him right to a boarding school. The niece, Wendy Bridgewater, who said she knew nothing of sexual misconduct by her uncle, described him as an awkward loner who felt most comfortable around children, drawn to their “youthful spirit, the constant curiosity.”
After earning a degree from Stanford University, Kershaw settled in at Chestnut Hill Academy in 1950, the boys' school founded 89 years before.
At Chestnut Hill Academy, the stiff-gaited, crew-cut Kershaw, short and slight, was a well-organized fifth-grade teacher. Many found him gentle and kind.
Still, there was something off about him. “This was so odd and perplexing to me,” said Ben Brown, who was in his 1964-65 class. “Mr. Kershaw had a tradition. The tradition was that every time a kid would have a birthday, Mr. Kershaw would spank him.”
With some exceptions, Kershaw was popular among students. One reason was that a slot in his classroom came with a bonus: invitations to his many trips.
In the school year, there were the skiing and campouts. In the summers, for 30 years, Kershaw oversaw his wilderness camp, taking boys to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Luray Caverns, and more. The camp was not affiliated with CHA or Kershaw's other schools.
According to interviews and court records, his trips were also the staging grounds for at least five attacks on young boys, miles from home and under his supervision.
Two were the students at Chestnut Hill Academy who spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News. The newspapers do not identify victims of sex crimes without their permission, and each asked not to be named.
At the time of the attacks, the students were 10 or 11 and Kershaw was in his mid-30s. The molestations took place a year apart in the 1960s, the men said.
“It was something that I had to come to terms with,” said one man, now a health-care worker in his 60s. “It was wrong.”
In his case, he said, Kershaw touched his genitals when he took him and another fifth grader on a ski trip.
In the incident recounted by the second man, Kershaw became close with this target while looking after him on weekends as a favor to the boy’s divorced mother.
After inviting him to sleep in his tent at a camping trip, Kershaw sexually assaulted the boy. "He asked for me,” the victim, a 62-year-old businessman, said recently. “Next thing, I knew, he started doing stuff with me.”
“Bill clearly had the intent of having sexual relations with younger boys,” the man said. “He molested me. I was fortunate enough to get out of the situation before it got progressively bad.”
The next night, “I said, ‘I want to change tents,’ ” the man said. “Another kid took my spot.”
For children in Kershaw’s wilderness program, there were other risks.
On July 11, 1955, the seven boys, aged 12 to 16, died in the avalanche on Mount Temple in Banff Park in western Canada. The inquest later deemed “all leadership and equipment … inadequate,” finding that the boys were left to climb on unstable snow on a dangerous route without an adult present and with one ice ax among them.
Kershaw’s program was “completely unprepared to take on this or look after these precious darlings,” Wendy Watts Field, 76, whose brother died on the trip, said recently.
At the time of the tragedy, Kershaw was leading a different group of youngsters on a trip in New Hampshire. Hours after the boys’ bodies were brought down on pack horses, Kershaw telephoned a statement to the Inquirer: “Such an occurrence can never be fully understood. It is in God’s hands, not ours.”
Kershaw added: “I plan to continue with the trip I am now leading and will not permit this to spoil a pleasant summer trip for our group.”
Along with teaching and his summer treks, Kershaw would also tutor children after hours. One such child was a boy named Bobby Kampmann.
According to his brother, Kampmann was in Kershaw's fifth-grade class in the 1950s but refused to return to Chestnut Hill Academy for sixth grade. The refusal marked the onset of mental issues that troubled him until his suicide in 1974 at age 33, the brother said.
His parents later hired Kershaw to tutor Bobby. Steven Kampmann, a screenwriter and actor who appeared on Newhart and WKRP in Cincinnati, said he has an indelible memory of watching Kershaw arrive at his family’s home one evening when his parents were away and accompany his brother into a guest bedroom, closing the door. Kampmann is unsure if it was a tutoring session or something else.
Several weeks later, Kampmann said, his father came home from work to discover Kershaw in the basement with Bobby, where the boy had been lifting weights. His father loudly ordered Kershaw from the house.
Patricia Kirtley, who was married to Bobby Kampmann, also said that her former husband spoke of his father’s outburst at Kershaw, but would not say why his father was so angry. She, too, thinks her ex-husband likely was a victim of the teacher.
Kershaw’s long tenure at Chestnut Hill Academy came to an abrupt end in 1966. Today, school officials can’t explain his departure, saying all they could turn up in their files is the unsigned letter that both praised Kershaw and raised a question about him. That said, Evans Denniston, a Kershaw relative, said in a recent interview that he had left over a misconduct allegation involving a student.
John McIlvain, a retired English teacher, said he and staff heard unsettling rumors about their colleague but the school administration in those years shared or said nothing to address them.
That has changed. It has twice alerted graduates about other sexually abusive teachers. This year, it sent out a message regarding Thomson, 69, convicted last year of child abuse in South Jersey. Three Chestnut Hill Academy students say Thomson molested them in the 1970s.
In 2015, the school alerted graduates about Clifford, doing so in response to pressure from an alumnus, Clark Hindelang, who said that the teacher had sexually assaulted him in about 1970. Clifford was fired in 1972 after he was accused of abusing another Chestnut Hill Academy student. This student later killed himself at age 43. Clifford died in 2011 at age 67.
In an email to Hindelang, McIlvain praised him for going public. McIlvain told Hindelang he regretted that teachers hadn’t pushed to find out what lay behind the whispers that surrounded Kershaw and Clifford.
“I don't think any of us were appalled enough or outraged enough by such stories,” he wrote. “We were all (I include myself) guilty of a kind of passivity that now strikes me as a moral failure.”
Relatively soon after his departure, Kershaw was hired to teach at the far smaller Meadowbrook School, a private school in Abington.
The principal who hired him, the late Harold C. Parachini, would have had the contacts to learn Kershaw’s backstory. He had been an administrator at CHA, working there for 25 years before taking charge of Meadowbrook.
After five years at Meadowbrook, Kershaw’s career took another turn. He left for unknown reasons and began teaching part time at Frankford Friends School in Philadelphia. He quit that job in 1976 to teach sixth grade full time at Greene Street Friends, also in Philadelphia.
Then, an outraged parent did what Chestnut Hill Academy had failed to do a decade before.
Cheap liquor and porn
In the summer of 1976, Kershaw led a two-car band that headed up the East Coast through Maine and into Newfoundland. He and some adult assistants were in charge of a dozen boys.
On that monthlong trip, as he would later admit, Kershaw repeatedly touched the genitals of two 11-year-old boys in his tent at night.
In a recent interview, one of the victims said Kershaw seemed to be targeting several youngsters on the trip. "His MO was in retrospect horrible,” said the man, 51, who asked not to be named. “He would have guys in his tent with some cheap liquor.”
The parents of a third boy on the trip recently said Kershaw also attempted to molest their son during the same trip.
As the outing continued, Kershaw's assistants began to hear about his night-time actions. One victim said they put a note in Kershaw’s tent that read: “Child molestation is a crime.”
Even this didn’t deter him. At the trip’s close, some of the boys ended up staying overnight at Kershaw’s home on Abington Avenue in Chestnut Hill. There, Kershaw gave the boys firecrackers and showed them pornographic movies in the attic.
“We were treated to a series of porno movies,” Chris Groobey, also 51, said. “That’s my last memory – that I was there and that I wanted to get out of there.”
After Groobey and his friend returned home, their parents eventually learned what had happened. Millie Coleman Groobey, Chris’ mother, called the police.
“I was so angry,” she recalled recently. “I was beyond angry that anyone would consider touching my son in any way. And I wanted to do something about it.”
Four months after the trip, Kershaw was charged with molesting the two boys, who both came from a top private school in Washington, D.C. (There are no known complaints that he abused any children while teaching at Meadowbrook or the two Friends schools.) In their complaint against Kershaw, police noted that he told the young campers that he had touched other boys and “they liked it."
In a plea bargain, Kershaw quickly pleaded guilty to two counts of corruption of minors. Even so, 15 people wrote the judge appealing for leniency. They included Parachini, the principal at Meadowbrook; the principal of Frankford Friends; and other staff from three of the four private schools that had employed Kershaw.
The judge sentenced him to three years' probation, telling Kershaw in court that he wasn't jailing him because his “obvious intellectual attainment” meant he could change.
Lying to the state
During the narrow window between his arrest and his 1977 plea, Kershaw moved swiftly to plan for his future and find a way to keep immersed in the world of children. Before pleading guilty, he obtained a certificate to teach elementary school in California. After, he sold his Chestnut Hill home and moved to be near his sister in the San Francisco area.
Next, Kershaw and his sister left for Goldendale in Washington state. In Washington, Kershaw checked “no” on a state teacher-certification form when asked if he had been convicted of a crime. He also falsely denied being fired from his last job. Kershaw resumed teaching and was a substitute elementary-school teacher in Goldendale public schools from 1981 to 1987.
“It troubles me that this could have possibly happened back then,” said Mark Heid, the current school superintendent. “Things are much better, much tighter, now.”
Indeed, a national database of abusive teachers, founded in 1989, has greatly helped flag abusers who try to resurface and teach elsewhere. But it has flaws. A USA Today investigation last year reported that as many as 9,000 educators who had been disciplined were not in the database, including 200 whose licenses had been permanently revoked for physical or sexual abuse. Kershaw was not listed.
Kershaw also was able to evade scrutiny to become active in the Boy Scouts. As scoutmaster of Troop 551 in Goldendale, Kershaw, then in his 60s, kept up his camping adventures. The local weekly took note of the 1986 trip he and assistant scoutmaster Ed Weddle took with eight scouts to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. (The organization did not require criminal background checks until 2008.)
He never spoke about his past. “I just wondered why he was so secretive,” recalled Weddle's wife, Vivian. “He didn’t talk about where he came from.”
After his sister’s death about a decade ago, Kershaw moved back east, settling in Vermont to be near his niece. There, she said, he once again tutored youngsters.
In his later years, Kershaw had developed a new focus – the Philippines. Along with a couple of other men, he would fly there every year, staying for weeks at a time.
According to his niece, his interest was philanthropic. “He had some families that he was helping the kids go to school, and buying them clothes,” she recalled.
Ed Weddle recalled the trips, too.
"At the scout meetings, he’d ask them for uniforms and any clothes that are in good condition, saying, ‘Because I am going to the Philippines – there are boys there your size.’ ”