A Local Legacy Of Addressing College Affordability


IT'S BEEN ALMOST 50 years since a group of Manchester parents and teachers got together to address a new challenge that was beginning to assert itself.  Back then, in 1974, tuition at a four-year public college cost $510 per year.  For a private college, the average yearly cost was higher: $2,130. 

It wasn’t called an “affordability gap.”  But that’s what it was, and that group of parents and teachers created a small scholarship fund to help address it.  They called their new venture simply, “The Manchester Education Fund.”

Today, the Manchester Essex Education Fund (MEEF) is a critical and welcome source of local college scholarships for local students, with $1,075,000 in assets.  The not-for-profit fund last year awarded 44 individual scholarships totaling $54,000 from 28 established funds named for donor families, teachers and local organizations.

“We try to increase the fund every year,” said Gail Ramos, a corporator of trustees at Cape Ann Savings Bank who has served on MEEF’s board since the early 1980s.  “That’s been the simple goal.”

The original 1974 incorporators were Sally Weld (founding president), Joanne Howland, Jeremiah “Jerry” Noonan (who, according to a 1978 article in the Cricket, “waded through enough red tape to stretch from here to China to get a tax-exempt status for the Fund”), George Brown, Theodore Brown, Nancy Bachman, Ed Field, Bruce Magoon, and Ann Nicol.  Donations started to come in. 

Early in the life of the fund, the board focused on sustainability and building something that would last.  Local families donated in the name of loved ones.  Others donated anonymously.  Funds were managed by the Cape Ann Savings Bank Trust and Financial Services (the bank continues to donate much of its time to the fund).  All the while, demand for college increased (especially as women entered higher education) and, increasingly, college financing became less “manageable,” especially for average families.  The fund was able to track with the community’s needs.

Gael Donelan Tarleton, Manchester High School’s Class of 1977 valedictorian, was an early recipient of a MEEF scholarship.  Her mother, Ann Jean Donelan, was a longtime and important board member of MEEF. 

After graduation, Gael attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she studied Russian language and earned a master’s degree in government and national security studies.

“That scholarship totally changed the way I, as the sixth of seven kids, could see that college was going to be within reach for me,” said Donelan Tarleton, who embarked on a career working for the US Defense Intelligence Agency and then international business before entering politics in Washington State.  She was the Commissioner of the Port of Seattle, and then served as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from 2013 to this year.

In 2014, the fund was renamed, adding “Essex” to its name, responding to the regionalized school district.  MEEF’s all-volunteer board expanded to include Essex residents and MERSD representatives.  Currently, Ann Cameron, an Essex resident who served for nearly two decades on the ME School District Committee (including to explore regionalization) is the current chair of MEEF.  Today the board is split proportionately between the two communities.

“The important thing about MEEF is it’s truly less about the school and more about the community,” said Beverly Low, MERSD director of Guidance and College Counseling and on the MEEF board.  “It’s about meeting the needs of the community, both Essex and Manchester.”

Linda Crosby, the retired school district’s head of guidance and Low’s predecessor, has been a continued presence on the board for more than two decades.

One of the two biggest scholarship funds within the MEEF umbrella, with $220,000 in funds, is the Timothy C. Averill Debate Education Fund, established in 2004.  Named for one of MERSD’s most beloved teachers who founded the school district’s nationally recognized debate program, the scholarship’s mission within MEEF is, not surprisingly, to support excellence in debate.  When he retired in 2005, it was his former student, none other than Gael Donelan Tarleton, who led the charge among his students, raising $100,000 to start the fund. 

As it’s grown, Averill has been able to expand the impact of supporting debate nationally.  The Averill Debate scholarship awards about $10,000 each year, disbursed among up to seven or eight students. One of the earliest funds within MEEF is the Sally Weld Family Scholarship Fund, and the Weld family has continued Sally Weld’s legacy as a central member and founder of the group back in 1974.  The Weld family manages the Sally Weld Scholarship, and over the last three decades there has always been a Weld on the MEEF board, including Christopher “Kit” Weld, Jr., Mark Weld (MBTS Finance Committee member), and Sally’s daughter-in-law, Caroline Weld, herself a big presence in the school district as a longtime member of both the ME School Committee and Memorial School Building Committee. 

The Weld Family Scholarship remains one of MEEF’s biggest, and most generous scholarship funds.

As it looks to the future, MEEF hopes to continue growing to ensure its impact is sustained for a very long time—a goal that is more relevant than ever.  According to a Fidelity survey of 4,000 current students, recent grads and parents, six in 10 college-bound students say the pandemic has triggered a change in their view of higher education.  Four in 10 of them said cost is the “most important” factor in choosing a school.

Ultimately, it’s longevity that matters.  Because longevity means impact, and sustained impact means a legacy.  MEEF’s original founders may have had that in mind, and it’s certainly, 48 years later, what drives the fund’s current stewards.

“It’s something that pleases me to no end,” said Averill.  “I’m 74 years old, and when I’m not around I know there will be a board who looks to the mission of the fund and keeps it going, and continues the debate legacy we’ve started.  It brings me nothing but joy.”

timothy c. averill debate education fund, joanne howland, washington house of representatives, us defense intelligence agency, manchester essex education fund, sally weld, ann jean donelan, manchester high school, george brown, manchester education fund, donelan tarleton, georgetown university, linda crosby, cape ann savings bank, memorial school building committee, me school district committee, beverly low, mark weld, bruce magoon, mersd, ed field, ann nicol, gael donelan tarleton, sally weld family scholarship fund, caroline weld, nancy bachman, theodore brown, me school committee, ann cameron