At 150, Peddie Readies a Party

In 1872, a Hightstown prep school was saved by the intervention of a wealthy immigrant named Thomas B. Peddie. Today the establishment, renamed for its white knight, is thriving.

Hats Off: Members of the Peddie School class of 1886. "Our dreams have grown" since those early days, says headmaster Peter Quinn.
Photo Courtesy of Peddie School

The year was 1872. The New Jersey Classical and Scientific Institute, a Baptist preparatory school founded just eight years earlier in Hightstown, was on shaky financial ground. Enrollment was down, and the school was suffering from a severe lack of funds.

A white knight was needed—and one materialized in the person of Thomas B. Peddie. The son of a Baptist preacher, Peddie had immigrated to Newark from his native Edinburgh in 1833. After apprenticing as a saddle maker, he made his fortune in leather goods, particularly valises.

Moved by the school’s plight and his commitment to Baptist values, Peddie stepped up with a $25,000 donation. That gave the school a new lease on life and a new name: the Peddie Institute.

“Thomas Peddie saved the school,” says Peter McClellan, teacher and alumnus of what is now the Peddie School. Now co-ed and non-denominational, Peddie School enrollment totals about 550 students, mostly in grades 9 through 12. Each year, it draws students from more than 20 states and nearly 30 foreign countries.

Over the course of its 150 years, Peddie School alumni have included Olympic athletes B.J. Bedford and Nelson Diebel—both gold-medal swimmers—and publisher and diplomat Walter Annenberg. Following Thomas Peddie’s example, Annenberg in 1993 gave $100 million to the school, said to be the largest donation ever made to a U.S. secondary school at that time.

Peddie and his family continued to support the school into the 20th century. After achieving success in business, Peddie entered politics. A Republican, he was elected to the state Assembly in 1864, became mayor of Newark in 1866, and served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives starting in 1877.

As a philanthropist, Peddie also threw his support behind the First Baptist Church of Newark. After his death in 1889, the church was renamed the First Baptist Peddie Memorial Church of Newark.

This year, Peddie School is recognizing its namesake as part of its sesquicentennial celebration. The school will mark Founders Day in February, and host a celebratory alumni weekend in May. “Our dreams have grown,” says Peter Quinn, who was installed as the school’s 16th headmaster this year. “But we haven’t stepped away from that pride in contribution.”

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