Dorrance Hill Hamilton, 88, the billionaire Campbell Soup Co. heiress whose generous hats and more generous philanthropy made her a spirited presence in society and cultural circles of Philadelphia and Newport, R.I., died Tuesday morning at her home in Boca Grande, Fla., after a long illness.
“She set an example for what it meant to be a philanthropist in this town,” said Patricia D. Wellenbach, president and CEO of the Please Touch Museum, where Mrs. Hamilton stepped in at critical times. “She brought great joy to Philadelphia and beyond. Think of all the work she did with the Flower Show, her work with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Please Touch Museum, the zoo. I don’t think there was a corner of the city that she hasn’t touched."
Mrs. Hamilton was the first woman to be named to the board of Thomas Jefferson University, and Wellenbach commended her for her investment "in educating doctors and nurses of the future" there. "She was so expansive in her understanding of her role,” she said.
Known as “Dodo” -- a nickname she received from her mother -- Mrs. Hamilton was a dogged competitor at the Philadelphia Flower Show for almost three decades and funded the $1 million Hamilton Horticort, the area for the show's plant competitions. She leaves the city and region dotted with new buildings, gardens, and other spaces bearing the Hamilton name.
“She was a woman of vision; she put her mind to a project and it was done,” said her daughter, Margaret Hamilton Duprey.
In addition to giving to arts, horticulture, and education, Mrs. Hamilton was guided by “giving people a break -- giving them hope that they can better themselves through education and to give them a better place in life,” said son S. Matthews V. Hamilton Jr. “She instilled in me and my sister and brother the importance of giving back, and we’ve instilled it in our children, I hope.”
Over the years, she has given support, much of it quite substantial, to the University of the Arts, the Zoological Society of Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Main Line Health, the Morris Arboretum, WHYY, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fox Chase Cancer Center, the Children’s Literacy Initiative, Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, St. Francis De Sales, the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Philadelphia, and the Gesu School.
One of her longest associations locally was with the University of the Arts, first as a trustee of the Philadelphia College of Art (one of the university’s predecessor institutions) in 1970. In 1989, two years after PCA’s merger with the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, she became chair of the new board of trustees of the University of the Arts. It was under her leadership that the school expanded its degree offerings, increased faculty salaries and student aid, and boosted its fund-raising.
She is the largest donor in the history of the school with a $25 million gift to the university in 2006 through her charitable trust.
Mrs. Hamilton had homes in Wayne, Newport, R.I., and Boca Grande off the west coast of Florida. Born Aug. 16, 1928, in New York and raised there and at “Bois Dore,” a 36-room formal French estate in Newport, she was a granddaughter of John T. Dorrance, who invented the soup-condensing process and became president of Campbell Soup Co. in 1914.
Her family spent weekends from fall to spring in Radnor, where her grandparents' estate, Woodcrest (now the site of Cabrini University), helped establish her love of horticulture, according to a biography provided by the Hamilton Family Foundation.
She attended Foxcroft, a boarding school in Virginia for young ladies, where she met her future husband, Samuel M.V. Hamilton, whose grandfather was president of Baldwin Locomotive Works. They married in 1950. He became a brokerage executive for the firm now known as Janney Montgomery Scott, and died in 1997.
She was destined for a certain kind of social life, with its attendant level of high visibility. Jane Pepper, the former president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who traveled and dined often with Mrs. Hamilton, once asked what her coming-out party was like. “And she said, ‘Which one -- the one in Philadelphia, the one in Baltimore, or the one in New York?’ ”
Still, Pepper said, she was basically a rather shy person “who cared enormously about others, and she would quietly in her own way take care of things” for other people.
It was out of concern for her family, Mrs. Hamilton said, that she became enmeshed in a rather public feud. In the late 1980s, in the go-go years of mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street, financial and personal anxieties threatened to tear apart the Campbell Soup heirs and lead to the sale of the company. Mrs. Hamilton became one of the leaders -- if not the leader -- of a faction of the family that sought a sale.
“After a lot of really heart-wrenching crying at night, ... I came to the conclusion this would be best for my family," she later told a friend, according to an Inquirer account.
The decision put a notoriously publicity-shy family into the limelight. Eventually, different family members, for different reasons, began to back off the plan, and Campbell remained in family hands.
Mrs. Hamilton's net worth was recently estimated by Forbes at $1.26 billion.
Her involvement with Thomas Jefferson University stretched nearly five decades, supporting research, professorships, scholarships, breast imaging, and other clinical programs. Among other roles, she was president of the Women’s Board from 1969 to 1972, oversaw an expansion of Pennywise Thrift Shop, and took on fund-raising for the heliport on Foerderer Pavilion.
She gave the lead gift -- $25 million -- to help create the building at Jefferson that bears her name to help facilitate team-based training of doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals. At one time, that space on campus had been slated to become a parking lot, said Gregory Kane, chair of Jefferson’s department of medicine.
Mrs. Hamilton, however, responded to a higher level of ambition. “She had this inspiration, this vision for the role Jefferson could play in the fabric of the city,” he said. “In some ways, the Hamilton Building is the heart and soul of the campus, because of the inter-professional education, because of its use as a social space.”
She served a similar role for other institutions. For the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she acquired an important collection of watercolors, hosted parties at her Newport home to introduce PAFA leaders to art collectors and patrons from across the country, and stepped in at a critical time to make possible its expansion into a building just to the north on Broad Street now named for her husband, PAFA’s onetime board chairman.
“She made the lead gift that catalyzed the rest of the campaign,” said PAFA president and CEO David R. Brigham, who called Mrs. Hamilton one of the school and museum’s “leading lights” over its 210 years.
“And she was just a lot of fun,” Brigham said. “She always had a bright smile, kind words, and was looking to uplift the things that mattered to her. In her way, I think she set a great example.”
In addition to son S. Matthews V. Hamilton Jr. and daughter Margaret Hamilton Duprey, Mrs. Hamilton is survived by son Nathaniel Peter Hamilton, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Interment will be private in Newport. A memorial service is planned for May 11 at 11 a.m. at 218 Strafford Ave. in Wayne.
Donations may be made to: Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, c/o The Dorrance Hill Hamilton Fund to Advance Nursing Excellence, 125 S. 9th St., Suite 600, Philadelphia 19107; The Newport Hospital Foundation, c/o The Dorrance Hill Hamilton Fund to Advance Nursing Excellence, 11 Friendship St., Newport, R.I. 02840; or the Redwood Library, 50 Bellevue Ave., Newport, R.I. 02840.