Mercersburg Academy gets $100 million from Simon heiress


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Deborah J. Simon loves Mercersburg Academy.

And the 120-year-old private boarding school, which educated actor Jimmy Stewart on its rolling Franklin County campus, has 100 million reasons to love Ms. Simon back.

Ms. Simon, a Mercersburg alumna, and the Deborah Joy Simon Foundation have pledged $100 million to the property heiress's alma mater.

It is the second largest gift to a private school in the United States.

Ms. Simon of Indianapolis is a daughter of Melvin Simon, the late billionaire founder of Simon Property Group, owner of South Hills Village, Ross Park Mall and numerous other commercial properties across the country.

"It's terrific," said Fox Chapel's Walter McGhee, a 1978 graduate who advises the school's investment committee. "It's a great day for Mercersburg."

Ms. Simon announced the gift Thursday at the school, which hosted a reception with cake and punch for students, faculty, staff and regents.

Located about 70 miles southwest of Harrisburg on a 300-acre campus, the school has 435 students in grades 9-12 from 40 countries and 26 states. This year, 22 hail from Western Pennsylvania. Mercersburg boasts 54 Olympians, a Nobel Prize laureate, former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh and Oscar winners Mr. Stewart and actor Benicio del Toro.

"It's truly transformative," school spokesman Wallace Whitworth said of the gift.

Ms. Simon's donation will be used partly to broaden tuition assistance and allow more middle-class students to attend the venerable institution.

Tuition is $51,000 a year, which also covers room and board. But lest anyone think that Mercersburg caters only to the elite, 32 percent of students receive need-based financial aid, and 49 percent get need-based and merit scholarships ranging from $5,000 to a free ride.

"Even if they're on some financial aid, it's still a pretty expensive proposition. By being able to remove financial barriers to allow us to enroll any student regardless of their ability to pay would be wonderful," said Mr. McGhee, whose oldest child is a senior at Mercersburg. "That's the main goal of the campaign, to reach more middle-class families out there."

Mercersburg currently spends $5.1 million on financial aid. It has an endowment of $217 million, and Ms. Simon's gift represents a third of the school's new fundraising campaign goal of $300 million.

The gift -- outstripped only by a $128.5 million pledge to the George School in Newtown, Pa., in 2007 and tieing the 1993 grant to the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. -- has three components. It includes $50 million to be paid out over 20 years, $25 million in the form of a matching grant over a decade and a $25 million bequest.

Being that Ms. Simon is only 57, it might take some time for the school to access that last portion.

"Frankly a $10 million gift is transformative for many schools, so $100 million is really unbelievable," said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools.

The money also will be used to sweeten the situation for faculty members through ongoing education, sabbaticals and other enticements.

Ms. Simon, a 1974 graduate, could not be reached for comment. But she told The Associated Press that the school, which she attended during a tough period of her adolescence, was a "lifesaver."

So how does a school go about getting such a large gift?

It simply asked.

Mr. Whitworth said a longtime regent from the Boston area, retired veterinarian John K. Prentiss, sought out Ms. Simon, who is also a regent, and made the request in January while the school was gearing up for its $300 million "Daring to Lead" campaign.

He "really seized the moment and said, 'You know, Deborah, we really need to do something big.' Deborah said, 'We really do.' John said, 'How about 100 million?' Deborah said, 'Why not?' " said Mr. Whitworth.

Laura Fisher of Ligonier, a regent whose daughter graduated in 2011, learned of the pending gift in the spring. She marveled at the fact that Ms. Simon had the ability and desire to make a donation on an almost unprecedented scale -- and to do so at a relatively young age.

"I was speechless and thrilled," said Ms. Fisher, an executive with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. "It just makes you feel in awe."

education - state

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM


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