Within a week of the Sept. 26, 1970, death of Jessie Ball duPont, her secretary opened the safe at her mansion and retrieved the original copy of her will, carefully embossed with red sealing wax. That document directed the disposition of Mrs. duPont’s estate — then one of the largest estates in Florida history, estimated at $42 million.
The will called for establishment of the Jessie Ball duPont Religious, Charitable and Educational Fund, which might benefit any institution that had been a recipient of Mrs. duPont’s gifts between Jan. 1, 1960 and Dec. 31, 1964.
It was more than six years before legal and tax issues were resolved and the estate settled. In January 1977, the trustees held their first meeting.
They were far from strangers. The four trustees were:
The only staff was Hazel Williams, who had served as Mrs. duPont’s personal secretary. It was Miss Williams who personally recommended $4.2 million in grants to 113 organizations in that first year of grantmaking.
Today, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund is quite different.
None of the trustees personally knew Mrs. duPont. The portfolio manager and corporate trustee have no historical connection to the duPont estate. A professional program staff evaluates and makes recommendations on grantmaking, which now totals $12 million — $18 million a year.
And while the Fund stills supports those organizations referenced in Mrs. duPont’s will, it encourages those institutions to expand their capacity to serve their communities and find new and innovative ways to extend the reach of Mrs. duPont’s legacy.
Jessie Dew Ball was born in 1884 into a genteel Virginia family impoverished by the Civil War. Her home was in the Northern Neck of Virginia, that spit of land generally bounded by the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
She was educated in a one-room country school and, later, at what is now Longwood University in Farmville, Va. She helped her father in his law practice and taught school in her home county until 1908, when she moved with her parents to San Diego, California. There, she became assistant principal in the largest elementary school in the city and contributed to the support of her elderly parents.
It was in San Diego that the young Jessie first demonstrated her philanthropic tendencies. From her modest educator’s income, she began awarding college scholarships to needy students. Eventually she managed more than 100 such scholarships, a reflection early in life of her deep commitment to education.
In 1920, she re-established an earlier friendship with Alfred I. duPont, a member of one of America’s most distinquished families and a man of great wealth. She had first met duPont when he had come to the Northern Neck on hunting expeditions around the turn of the century. They were married in 1921 and by 1927 had built their estate, Epping Forest (see map), in Jacksonville, Florida.
Mrs. duPont was not only a devoted wife but also a constant companion and close adviser to her husband in both his business and charitable activities. When he died in 1935, she assumed control of his vast business enterprises in Florida and became the principal trustee of his estate. In his memory, she created three foundations: One to build a children’s hospital in Delaware, now the Nemours Foundation; a second to assist needy persons in Delaware, Florida and Virginia, the Alfred I. duPont Foundation; and a third to recognize outstanding contributions in the field of broadcast journalism, the Alfred I. duPont Awards Foundation.
From the time of her marriage, Mrs. duPont focused her life on charitable and philanthropic work.
For four decades, she funded hundreds of scholarships for college students, mostly in the southeastern states. Her gifts to colleges and universities augmented faculty salaries and built libraries. Hundreds of churches of all denominations, major charities, children’s homes, historic buildings and art museums benefited from her gifts.
The Jessie Ball duPont Fund today continues to support the work of more than 300 grantees that were referenced in Mrs. duPont’s will. They range from large, widely known institutions such as the University of Notre Dame, the National Audubon Society and the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., to small, little known organizations serving local constituencies, such as Jenkins Orphanage Institute in North Charleston, S.C. and Kilmarnock Lancaster County Volunteer Rescue Squad in Virginia.
More than seven dozen religious organizations are supported, from the Rev. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis to the First Born Church of the Living God in Port St. Joe, Florida.
This diversity of size and interest, perspective and capacity makes rich opportunity for Mrs. duPont’s legacy. Through innovative programs and unique partnerships, her largess today touches lives far beyond the universe that she knew.
“Don’t call it charity,” Mrs. duPont said. “I think it is an obligation.”