Truth be told, Assembly is one of the hardest events to keep track of. People often go blank during the meeting, especially after two heavy-loaded classes with five minutes break in between.

However, the students from both Access Exeter and Upper school seemed to be considerably engaged in our last Friday’s assembly. The speaker this time was an Exeter Summer “graduate” from 53 years ago, which can be traced back to 1964 when the citizens were still fighting for civil rights in the nation.

Not only is he an alum, but also had he another surprise connection to Exeter. (Stay tuned.)

Why was the history back then so important for this Assembly? Well, let me tell you a little bit about the speaker’s background.

Wendell J. Knox Sr. is an African-American from the state of Louisiana, which is in the Deep South with a terrible history of segregation between people of different colors.

Having grown up in a neighborhood with people of the same race, Mr. Knox had no experience of friendship with any lighter color kids. “I have never interacted with people of other races because I attended black schools”, said Mr. Knox.

This was also one of the reasons why he would come back after 53 years sharing his time spent here, which pushed him to take the first step of breaking the racial barrier.

“I got my first white friend ever in Exeter Summer,” said Mr. Knox. (Although we might not be able to recall the same exact thing as Mr. Knox, we are clearly feeling in similar ways. For me it is “I got my first German friend ever,” for others it might be Chinese or Spanish or French. Exeter summer for sure is bringing students diversity no matter how long the time has passed.)

Mr. Knox also shared his inner feelings going back to before he came to Exeter’s summer program. Like a lot of us, and even more than many of us, Mr. Knox was worried about academics and making friends in a different environment. It was later proved from Mr. Knox’s personal experience that these concerns don’t exist at Exeter at all.

The Harkness method made him realize his own value, and that he too had something to contribute to the class and he too had the right to challenge a teacher. The campus was breath-taking for Mr. Knox and was so vast that it seemed like a college campus. And for the first time in life, Mr. Knox got his own room.

All of these factors made Mr. Knox realize that there are no stereotypes at Exeter. “I got to know that not all the white kids are rich,” said Mr. Knox, “that black and brown people can be smart too, and that I have the freedom to do whatever I want too.”

The experience in summer 1964 benefited Mr. Knox through Harvard University and the capability that he gained that summer even helped him later on along his career.

Mr. Knox called his Exeter summer experience “life changing”. “It opened my eyes, mind and heart, and made me realize the significance of hard work and kindness,” said Mr. Knox.

And his surprise connection to Exeter?

His granddaughter Veronica Knox from Alabama is a student here this summer.


Wendell J. Knox was President and Chief Executive Officer of Abt Associates from 1992 until 2009. He joined Abt Associates in 1969 while a student at Harvard University. His research has included work in urban and regional economic development, minority business expansion, and employment and workforce development. His commercial consulting activities have focused on strategic planning, marketing, and quality measurement assignments in the financial services, healthcare, and automotive industries.