The class of 1900 at Delaware College was typical in nearly every way. All but three of its eighteen members were Delawareans. Most came from small country towns; six were from Wilmington, the State's only city. Among the eighteen was a young man named Hugh Rodney Sharp, the son of a Sussex County farmer who had become deputy collector of the Port of Lewes.
|Hugh Rodney Sharp had relished the opportunity to attend college and had loved much of what he found in Newark, but even as an undergraduate, he must have recognized the schools limitations. Having trained neither to become a farmer nor an engineer but rather in the traditional liberal arts, upon graduating, he accepted the position of school master in the village of Odessa, Delaware. Rodney Sharp was entranced by the little community that had changed hardly at all in a hundred years. As was the case in much of rural Delaware, progress had passed Odessa by, leaving undisturbed, the plain but dignified structures from an earlier age. In 1903, when Sharp left the village to accept a position in the Treasurers Office at the Du Pont Company, he did not forget the little town nor his love of Delawares Colonial architecture.
In 1903, the Du Pont Company was in the midst of a major transformation. Following the death of its president, Eugene du Pont, the previous year, three young du PontsT. Coleman, Pierre S., and Alfred I.had assumed control of the venerable powder company. As the companys new president, T. Coleman aggressively absorbed rival explosives manufacturers. Pierre, meanwhile, applied his business acumen as company treasurer to restructure the administration of the expanded company to achieve maximum efficiency and to provide the companys leaders with the information needed to make sound decisions. The road to rational consolidation was not without serious obstacles. In 1912, the federal government successfully sued the company for antitrust violations. More painful still, an interfamily legal battle ensued over the disposition of T. Colemans stock when the president left the company to pursue other political and business interests. But, in spite of those troubles, the E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company grew and prospered. When world war erupted in Europe in 1914, the company was able to expand rapidly to meet the unprecedented and highly lucrative demand for military powder.
As an employee of the Treasurers Department, Hugh Rodney Sharp met its head, Pierre S. du Pont. Sharp became acquainted with Pierres family and, in 1908, married Pierres sister, Isabella. In 1913, Pierre was increasingly assuming the duties of leadership in the company of which he was soon to become President. Needing more staff, he invited his brother-in-law to become his personal secretary. From a desk in Pierres office, Hugh Rodney Sharp handled both company and personal business for his employer. The position gave Sharp opportunities to discuss mutual interests, including gardening and education. Pierre was appalled at the low quality of public education that existed in most of Delaware outside the city of Wilmington. He was determined to use his newly earned wealth for reform. His principal instrument was an organization called Service Citizens of Delaware, through which Pierre funded a dramatic transformation in public education in the First State that included the construction of modern school buildings, the imposition of a higher standard of preparation for teachers, and the enactment of a new school code. Pierre du Ponts involvement in educational reform set the stage for his subsequent interest in Delaware College.
By 1912, increased enrollment by non-tuition paying Delawareans had strained the resources of Delaware College to the breaking point. George A. Harter, a long-time Professor of Mathematics and Acting President, turned to P. S. du Pont for help. He wrote the industrialist a letter in the hope that du Pont "might be interested in the work that we are doing at Delaware College with resources so slender as to make us feel much discouraged . . . ." President Harter pointed out that most of the Colleges 160 students were Delaware residents who attended the tuition-free institution because they could not afford more expensive colleges. The College "should offer training to our citizens in every line that may prove useful and enjoyable in life," but that goal was impossible to achieve with the resources at hand. To illustrate the problem, Harter described in particular the scientific laboratory, a dark, subterranean space with a low ceiling and ventilation so inadequate that the room gave off "intolerable" vapors. Pierre du Ponts response disappointed President Harter. "I have read very carefully your letter . . . and appreciate fully the needs of Delaware College as well as the advantages to be gained by the community through enlargement of the schools facilities. However, at this time I am not in a position to consider making a donation, nor of organizing an effort to finance the College. In the future should I be able to do anything, I should be very glad . . . as it would be a great pleasure to be of service and I am sure the effort would be well repaid."