Exonian, businessman, and philanthropist Charles (Charlie) J. Hamm founded the leadership program at Exeter Summer School. We got the chance to meet him and listen to his talk at the Forum on Tuesday morning.

Hamm’s experience at Exeter had a great impact on his life, enabling him to get admitted to Harvard and then lead careers in marketing and banking. Even though it was quite stressful and challenging academically, it was an enriching experience: he felt there was a competitive nature at PEA that forced one to become “braver, more confident, [but also better at] handling risk”.

Moreover, Charlie Hamm struggled with dyslexia when he was a student at PEA. At the time, in the 1950s, teachers failed to understand what it was and estimated it meant a student was either lazy or stupid. When we asked him what we could do to help our fellow students with learning disabilities, he simply said: “Anything you want!”.

What saved Hamm from the daily humiliation he faced because of his learning disability – such as teachers putting his homework on the blackboard and making fun of it – were math, arts and athletics. Because math required less reading and writing than other subjects, he excelled at it. Furthermore, he expressed his emotions by painting at night.

“I was the only student with the key to the art studio,” he claimed proudly.

Also, he was very good at athletics, which then led him to becoming captain of the varsity squash squad at Harvard.

Therefore, Hamm believes that schools, especially state schools, that neglect athletics and arts for financial reasons are very wrong; these should be made a priority: “Athletics and arts are incredibly important toward a fuller life.”

Hamm found the Harkness teaching method at the Exeter beneficial. As as shy student, it was “difficult and terrifying” for him to express his opinion in front of all of his classmates, yet he was forced to do so and he now describes it as being a “wonderful” learning process.

Most of all, he learned leadership at Exeter. This helped him in his careers in marketing at McCann Erickson and banking at the Independence Community Bank (which grew considerably when he was its CEO). To him, possessing leadership skills is crucial in life: “It’s up to you to try and maximize your potential for yourself and for helping others,” he said “if you fall back on your principles, you’ll be fine.”

Philanthropist Charles J. Hamm is convinced that “a person calls for evolution and you’ve got to start somewhere”. Where, you may ask? The leadership program offered at PEA Summer School, consists in analyzing both theories and the lives of important leaders in history. Also, students acquire leadership abilities by working on thematical group projects.

Hamm decided to start the leadership program at summer school mostly because of his first, shocking experience related to leadership when he was in college. As the captain of the Harvard squash team, he attended an athletic council meeting in which the issue of removing cheerleaders because they were not manly enough was raised. Opposing this idea, he stood up and ‘expressed what he thought was right’, only to get kicked out of the meeting… This frustrated him because he felt it was unfair not to be able to share your personal opinion. This is why he didn’t just do his job as a leader for others (in this case, cheerleaders), he also did it for himself.

The leadership program has been becoming more and more succesful since its creation in 2008. “People care more and more about leadership [in today’s society], ” Hamm explained. He believes this is especially because of the power of contemporary political leaders such as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Charles J. Hamm started off as a student with dyslexia at Exeter, then attended Harvard  and had two incredibly successful careers in marketing and banking. In 2008, he created the Leadership Program and in 2011, he donated $1 million to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in support of the fundraising Campaign for the Next Century.

Nevertheless, when we asked him what he considered was his proudest achievement, he surprisingly answered: his wife, Irene, his family and the humble success they had: “We became rich but had more satisfaction donating the money.”