Older than America by more than three decades, Bethesda Academy stands as Savannah’s most storied educational institution. Allison Hersh ventures beyond the school’s signature arch to celebrate.
Photography courtesy of Bethesda Academy,Teresa Earnest and Chelsea Warlick
In the past three centuries, Bethesda Academy has seen a lot of change, but some things remain the same. Just ask one of the school’s hundred or so all-male students.
“We are a family, not a school,” raves John Wyatt Ingram, the valedictorian of Bethesda’s class of 2012. “Bethesda is such a special place to learn and grow because of the history that surrounds us.”
Now a sophomore majoring in pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin, Wyatt is one of more than 13,000 success stories who have passed beneath the iconic arch at Bethesda. This venerable institution celebrates its landmark 275th
anniversary this year, continuing its legacy of transforming lives on a scenic 650-acre campus nestled along the banks of the Moon River.
Like the majestic live oaks lining the school’s main entrance, Bethesda has deep roots that run far beyond the surface. In fact, its story dates back to 1740, just seven years after Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe established Savannah as England’s 13th
colony along the Atlantic coast.
A Love of Learning
Founded by the Rev. George Whitefield as a home for 61 orphans, Bethesda has the distinction of being the oldest childcare facility in the United States.
In its earliest days, Bethesda was visited by many of America’s founding fathers, and Benjamin Franklin was one of the institution’s earliest supporters. Over the past three centuries, Bethesda has upheld Whitefield’s founding mission to teach “a love for God, a love of learning and a strong work ethic.”
The Bethesda Home for Boys provided young men with a stable alternative to their home environment through 1991, adding an on-site academic program the following year. In 2011, the school was re-branded as Bethesda Academy, linking the institution back to Whitefield's original vision that Bethesda always be “a seat of sound learning.”
Over the years, Bethesda has evolved into an award-winning middle and high school serving a diverse student population—and focused on helping boys succeed in the classroom and beyond. Today, the school has a deep commitment to college preparatory learning and high-quality instruction. With an emphasis on integrated learning and spiritual development, the academy tailors its academic and hands-on educational opportunities to the developing minds of young men.
“We make learning dynamic,” the school’s long-time president, David Tribble, explains. “Bethesda is a unique culture with traditional classrooms as well as out door living laboratories.”
“Our boys are a living expression of Bethesda’s core values,”adds T. Mills Fleming, a partner at HunterMaclean who serves as the chairman of the Board of Governors. “Bethesda provides the infrastructure within which the boys cangrow and prosper. They know we care, that they matter and that we will give them the necessary tools to succeed.”
A Living Laboratory
Today, Bethesda Academy is a school for more than 100 young men, with a curriculum designed specifically around the ways boys learn most effectively. With residential and day school options, Bethesda is home to a wildlife management program, an organic farm and garden (complete with Dwarf Nigerian Goats, egg-laying hens and grass-fed cattle) and a nationally ranked chess team. Instead of lugging expensive books, each student receives a laptop loaded with the necessary texts, as well as interactive games and activities designed to engage and stretch his attention span.
“We teach the boys the value of discipline, responsibility and hard work in the classroom, on the playing field, and through our popular farm and garden work-study program,” Fleming says. “The boys can also earn credit towards their tuition by working on the farm (and other programs), and this makes them more appreciative of what it means to be a part of Bethesda’s rich heritage and culture.”
The school’s lush campus boasts stunning waterfront views, picturesque moss-draped live oaks and an informative visitor center that is open to the public, sharing Bethesda’s incredible story through multi-media exhibits and rare artifacts.
“There is no place like Bethesda in the United States,” Fleming declares. “We do not receive any state funding, so we have to raise close to $3.4 million per year to operate. Every dollar raised is a dollar well spent to give the boys a second chance to succeed.”
During the past 275 years, one constant has remained: a commitment to Whitfield’s founding values.
“Traditional values create a sense of brotherhood among our students,” Tribble explains. “They’re classmates, workmates and teammates who share a bond in a very unique learning culture.”
The Power of Place
Bethesda Academy is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and offers students a wide range of academic, athletic, vocational and spiritual development opportunities.
“Bethesda is a powerful place, with carefully designed curriculum, programs and work study, producing boys and outcomes that are beginning to gain national recognition,” raves board vice-chairman John C. Helmken II, South State Bank regional executive and executive vice president.
More than 85 percent of the school’s graduates attend college after graduation. Bethesda alumni have gone on to become acclaimed business leaders, scientists, teachers, doctors and professional athletes.
Many institutions have come and gone over the past 275 years. So, what is the secret to Bethesda’s longevity?
“We have learned that as the needs of our youth change, we need to change as well, while keeping our connection to traditional values,” Tribble muses. “You have to adapt and grow and learn and re-invent yourself.”
That versatility has been key to Bethesda’s impact over nearly three centuries. With strong leadership, committed teachers and a clear mission, this is one Savannah institution with an illustrious past—and a bright future.
“We will do everything we can,” Helmken promises, “to make sure that those who come after us are able to celebrate thousands of additional success stories.”
That’s a promise for the next 275 years.
Beyond the Arch
Allison Hersh takes notes at Georgia’s oldest—and, arguably, most breathtaking—educational institution.
Bethesda’s founder, the Rev. George Whitfield, wanted the institution to be a place of strong Calvinist influence defined by a wholesome atmosphere and strong discipline. Boys were taught a variety of trades so they could earn a living as adults.
Although Bethesda was founded as an orphanage in 1740, its mission and focus have evolved over the years to include students of all backgrounds. Approximately half of the school’s students participate in the boarding program, while the other half live at home and attend Bethesda as a day school.
Bethesda is home to one of the nation’s top competitive chess teams. In 2014, Bethesda’s chess team competed in an intense three-day tournament in San Diego, California, ranking ninth in the nation in the Under 800 Division.
Reverend Whitefield’s legacy has a proud military history. A brave Bethesda boy has fought and died in every war in which the U.S. has been involved, dating all the way back to the American Revolutionary War.
The school’s Whitfield Chapel is one of the South’s most romantic places to tie the knot. With herringbone brick floors and vintage wooden pews, this historic chapel has hosted dreamy weddings for celebrities such as Paula Deen, actress Mandy Moore and country singer Joe Nichols.