Exeter Summer alum Wendell Knox '64 delivers assembly speech

Exeter "opened my eyes, mind, and heart ... and [taught me to] question the stereotypes and assumptions that often burden us when we encounter new and unfamiliar faces,” says Knox.

Genny Moriarty
July 26, 2017
Wendell Knox, Exeter Summer class of '64 with his granddaughter Veronika, member of the 2017 Exeter Summer cohort.

Wendell Knox, Exeter Summer class of 64', with his granddaughter Veronika, a member the 2017 Exeter Summer cohort. Knox spoke at assembly about the impact of his Exeter experience.

Exeter Summer alum Wendell Knox still remembers the June day in 1964 that he and three buddies from school left Louisiana to come north for the summer. “Our parents were standing there outside that Greyhound bus in New Orleans, looking as though they would never see us again,” he recalled during a recent interview.

The four friends, who attended an all-black, all-boys Catholic school in New Orleans, had received scholarships to attend summer programs at prep schools in New England: Two of the friends went to Andover; Knox and the remaining boy went to Exeter. At that time, Knox had never traveled outside the Deep South, so the journey from there to New England, “where the food and architecture and accents were all so different, was part of the adventure.”

Fifty-three years after setting off on that journey, Knox — who went on to attend Harvard and has lived and worked in the Boston area for nearly half a century — accompanied his granddaughter Veronika to Exeter for the opening day of 2017 Exeter Summer. Although the campus has changed considerably since his time, Knox believes Veronika’s experience is not far from his own: “My guess is that her mind is being blown this summer, just as mine was. ... I imagine she’s a little bit awed, but a lot happy, and meeting new people. I suspect the core is the same, even if the context is a bit different.”

On July 21, Knox addressed young people from 37 different state and 53 countries in Assembly Hall, sharing with the newest cohort of Exeter Summer students how those five weeks at Exeter had opened his mind, changed his life and shaped his career. Knox told his audience he’d been worried before his arrival, as many of them probably had, about being so far from home. He questioned whether he’d be able to keep up with Exeter’s high academic standards and felt daunted by the prospect of interacting with people from different ethnic backgrounds, races and cultures — something he’d never experienced in the racially segregated south of the 1960s.

But, Knox said, the people he met on Exeter’s campus "opened my eyes, mind, and heart ... and [taught me to] question the stereotypes and assumptions that often burden us when we encounter new and unfamiliar faces.” He connected with the local townspeople who worked alongside him at his part-time job in the dining hall, and he discovered through his friendships with Native American students that they faced “very similar challenges on and off their reservations as I did in my Southern neighborhood.” For the first time in his life, Knox forged a friendship with a white student, “a very smart and hilarious boy named Pete from Leonia, New Jersey,” with whom he shared a lot of stories and a lot of laughter. “The many similarities in our experiences were surprising, but in a way, also comforting, to both of us. Finding that there can be common ground among people from very different backgrounds was enlightening to my 16-year-old brain."

Harkness, too, was transformative, showing him that respectful conversation, argument and debate can lead to mutual understanding. Knox said he’s returned to those skills throughout a long career in economic and public policy and in the business world. As the CEO of Abt Associates, a firm that tackles tough social, education and economic issues though innovative, research-based programs and policies, Knox maintained an oval table in his corporate boardroom to facilitate open discussions.

“I have had the opportunity to participate in meetings, forums, conferences, and negotiations all over this world,” he explained, “and the most successful of those encounters reflected the same basic principles of effective engagement and collaboration that you are experiencing at your Harkness tables this summer.”