Throughout the school year I have used my monthly Head’s Letter as an opportunity to say thank you and to express my gratitude for this wonderful school community I have called home for the last 15 years. This month I would like to share my deepest gratitude for Ms. Josephine Abercrombie, Founder of The Lexington School. She is a remarkable person, a mentor, and a visionary leader. She is also a great friend. This past fall Ms. Abercrombie was honored by The Thoroughbred Club of America for her lifetime of contributions to the thoroughbred industry. Horses are one of Ms. Abercrombie’s great loves. Below is the speech I gave that evening about Ms. Abercrombie’s other great love, The Lexington School. It is followed by a lovely video created by Keeneland and TCA.
Speech Delivered to The Thoroughbred Club of America in Honor of Ms. Josephine Abercrombie on Friday, September 28, 2018 by Charles D. Baldecchi, Head of The Lexington School:
Dreaming a big dream is, I am sure, a common thread among everyone in this room. If you are in the horse business, you are into dreaming big dreams. Perhaps it is to one day win the Kentucky Derby or, even bolder, the Triple Crown. Ms. A, I know, has had that dream in her lifetime.
I am here today to represent the BIGGEST dream Ms. Abercrombie had in her lifetime. Over 60 years ago, Ms. A dreamed of starting a school that would prepare and educate students for the country’s finest prep schools. Her dream accomplished not only that goal but surpassed even her wildest dreams. The Lexington School, in my humble opinion, is Ms. Abercrombie’s finest achievement. It is her legacy to the Bluegrass, a region that she so dearly loves – one that will live on for generations to come.
I would also argue it is her gift to the thoroughbred industry as well. Can I see a show of hands for anyone in this room who has attended TLS, is a parent or grandparent of an alum, or considers him or herself a friend of the school? [I knew there would be plenty of hands, but I was overwhelmed by the number of connections in the room!] By reviewing the names in the school’s first graduating class, you may recognize a few individuals: Don Robinson (Winter Quarter), Bill Young (Overbrook), Dave Fishback (Vet, Hagyard), Darby Turner (has owned a few horses in his day), Mike Bell (Beaumont Farm/ Mill Ridge, horse trainer), and Sara Clay Branch (Runnymede). In the class of 2018, by my estimate, 20% of the class has deep ties to the thoroughbred industry today.
While the school’s connection to the thoroughbred industry has remained, The Lexington School has changed a great deal since that first September day in 1959 when the entire school consisted of 59 students. Last year’s graduating class alone was 65. The school is currently at 600 students. Its campus has doubled in size to 40 acres. Whereas Ms. Abercrombie used to write a check at the end of the school year to bring the school’s finances into the black, today she issues a “challenge” through her foundation that motivates nearly 90% of our parents to support the school’s Annual Fund and helps raise as much as $900,000 annually. While there wasn’t an endowment until the mid-1980s, today, through the generosity of many of the people in this room including Ms. Abercrombie, the school’s endowment stands at $35 million, which in turn helps fund a robust financial aid program that provides roughly $1.7 million annually to make a Lexington School education more affordable to a quarter of the student body. This fulfills another dream of Ms. Abercrombie’s—making a TLS education possible to not only members of the Thoroughbred Club but also those working the backside!
I will never forget taking Ms. A on a tour of our new Lower School building. We finished the tour and were looking over the school’s playground and athletic fields from the second floor. She just started to cry. It was a good cry, and when she caught her breath, she said to me, “When I started this little school—little school—I never dreamed it would grow up to be all of this.”
Josephine, I am here to tell you that The Lexington School continues to grow and shape the Bluegrass. I love going out in public with Ms. A and seeing the people line up to thank her for the education she gave their children. They often cry with gratitude for the community that embraced their family, and they express thanks for a school that instilled in its students the values of a work ethic, integrity, and compassion from such a young age.
My question to you in this room: What have you done in your life that compels a grown man or woman to weep with gratitude? Is there something you created that continues to change lives?
Ms. A’s dream keeps getting bigger and bigger each year. Two years ago, a third party ranked The Lexington School the 2nd best elementary school in the nation. Soon there will be a new Academic Center with a state-of-the-art library and a home for our Learning Center. Yes, Ms. Abercrombie’s dream keeps growing bigger and bigger.
The Lexington School is not the sole philanthropic focus of the Abercrombie Foundation. Her family was instrumental in starting and funding the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, and true to her deep love of animals – equine, canine, and beyond – the Woodford County Humane Society has held a deep place in her heart. She loves any organization that works to protect this land we call the Bluegrass. In short, she is a generous woman who makes a difference.
The students at TLS know her and love her. For Ms. Abercrombie’s 90th birthday, we invited her to school so we could throw her a big birthday party. Why not? Ms. A loves celebrating her birthday and eating cake, and elementary school kids also love a birthday party and cake. It was a match made in heaven! But what struck the faculty the most that day was how many students came up to Ms. A after the assembly to give her hugs, and she hugged them right back. They knew who she was. Josephine Abercrombie wasn’t some name of a disconnected founder. She was everyone’s grandmother that morning, and they weren’t going to let her leave without giving her a hug! Sixty years later, TLS is still her school.
I’ll end with a story about one of the first times I met Ms. A. It was the spring of 2004, before I started at TLS 15 years ago. She asked me to meet her at Pin Oak Stud. She showed me around the office and introduced me to her wonderful team. I even got to meet her prized stallions (heck, I even got to meet the teaser, Little Red), but it wasn’t until she asked if I wanted to meet her babies that I saw that trademark twinkle in her baby blue eyes. I said of course. We piled into her Benz wagon with her trusted Weimaraner, Sterling, a breed, by the way, her father first brought to America from Germany. Then we started bouncing across field after field to see her babies, foals, months or weeks old. She had treats for them and their protective mothers. She told me each horse’s proud lineage three generations back. She had dreams for each of her babies. They were going to be champions one day. It was out there, bouncing around those fields, that I saw a visionary genius in action – Ms. A creating the vision she has shown throughout her incredible life. As we drove back to her office and parked the car, she looked over at me, locked her eyes on me, and said, “I love my babies. I love all my babies. Take good care of them!”
I knew what Ms. A meant.
She demands excellence and delivers excellence in all that she does in life. I was not going to disappoint! I was going to take care of her babies at 1050 Lane Allen Road.
Thank you Josephine Abercrombie for your dreams—big and small, for your legacy of excellence in thoroughbred racing and in education, and for all that you have accomplished in your remarkable life. Tonight, all of us come together to honor you, your legacy, and to say thank you!