Not the Obvious Choice: The Palmer Family Shipley Story

Kathy Smith

Our tale begins with a lonesome walk up a steep hill to a towering Victorian mansion. Our subject, seven-year-old David Palmer ’89, opens the massive front door, walks through the high-ceilinged foyer, and begins to ascend the daunting staircase, sliding his hand along the ornate wooden banister. It takes forever for his small legs to climb all of the steps.

It is 1979 and David is in third grade. At Shipley.

“The Beechwood building was an imposing place to go to school for small children,” Dave remembers. “Now, as an adult, I realize it is a normal size house. Back when I was little, when the first, second, and third grades were housed there,” he pauses with the weight of the memory, “its sheer size seemed unfathomable.”

Their Story

This is Dave Palmer’s story, the story of his memories as a Shipley student, his journey back to the Main Line, and his search for the right school for his children. But it’s also Laura Palmer’s story, a Kentucky girl who came east to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. And it is the story of their children, Henry ’26 and Vivian ’24. This is the Palmer family’s Shipley story.

The Good Old Days

Dave is what Shipley locals call a “lifer.” He entered Shipley in kindergarten and graduated 13 years later. And he loved it. “I had wonderful times at Shipley as a kid,” he remembers. “I was in all of the Shipley buildings at one time or another, so I have a strong emotional attachment to those spaces, even though they’ve been changed or repurposed over the years. Shipley was a big part of my growing up.”

While Charles Schulz was characterizing teachers as amusing but monotonous drones, Dave was experiencing something quite different in Shipley’s classrooms. “Shipley was very progressive about formulating methods of study for individuals within the classroom,” he says. “Even back in second grade I remember that they weren’t putting the teacher up in front to lecture. The School made an effort to include students.”

Homeward Bound

After heading to Stanford for college, then to Los Angeles and London for work, Dave found himself back at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he met his future wife, Laura. “We met in the spring of 1997,” explains Laura. “Dave was offered a job locally after graduation. We were thrilled.”

“It was a positive surprise to be back here permanently,” Dave agrees.  

You Would Think…

One might assume that Shipley would be the obvious choice for Dave and Laura when their children were of school age.

Not so.

“We wanted to look at schools with fresh eyes because Dave had been away from the Main Line for a significant amount of time, and because I’m not from this area,” says Laura. “So we asked people we admired most as parents why they made the decisions they did.” Time and again, they suggested Shipley.

Spoiled For Choice

“We are spoiled for choice around here,” Dave adds. “The tax base is very strong. The public schools are very well-funded. I think that because the bar is high, private schools have to differentiate themselves and demonstrate how they’re going to provide an educational experience that people are going to seek out. The more we researched, the more we realized that the Shipley of today is even better than the Shipley I went to.”

Five Words to Describe Shipley

You’d think it would be easy to describe a school in a few words. Laura gives it a try. “Warm, nurturing, inclusive,” she says. But soon her words expand to phrases, then sentences, and finally paragraphs. “Shipley just seems so dedicated to developing the interior life of children,” she says. “They’re always asking, ‘What are you doing when no one else is looking? Where is your motivation coming from?’ I find that so refreshing, especially when kids are too often looking for a pat on the back or a trophy. It is profoundly not about that here.”

Pitching In

Dave describes Shipley as being “collaborative,” but again, finds a single word confining. “One of the great things I’ve found refreshing about the School is the extent to which parents are a part of their own kid’s education process,” he says. “There’s so much volunteer work that goes on. There’s a spirit of community. There are folks from all facets, sharing their own professional experience to make the place stronger and better for the kids,” he says.

Dave and Laura speak from experience. Dave joined Shipley’s Board of Trustees this past year. Laura has been involved with Shipley Shops, is on the Parent Ambassadors Committee, and is currently a homeroom parent. She’s enjoyed taking shifts at the Spring Auction, the Lower School Book Fair, and Shipley’s Secret Gardens. “I think it takes a special place to make people want to spend the time they have to make the place better,” says Dave.

Big Thoughts

Dave and Laura both agree that Shipley encourages even the youngest children to think big. “It’s not about getting your G’s to look as good as possible,” observes Dave. “Our kids are coming home with expansive concepts that you would think would be applicable to much older kids. Granted, that means something different to a second grader than a junior, but it’s still really important.”

Can It Get Any Better?

Shipley’s come a long way from the days when Dave climbed the stairs at Beechwood, but the School is not finished evolving. Not by a long shot. Laura and Dave are excited to see the new arts facilities. “Shipley’s arts programs are of the highest quality,” explains Dave, “but they’re somewhat hidden away from the rest of the Shipley community. It will be exciting to bring those into more visible, outwardly-focused spaces.”

And beyond that? It seems that’s up to the educators and the Shipley community to decide.

“A lot of institutions encourage you to come back to a reunion and talk about the great times you had,” Dave says. Shipley certainly invites its alumni to walk down memory lane. But Shipley’s outreach asks alumni to go one step further. “We are asked to help imagine what the School can be like tomorrow,” explains Dave. “You can always remember the past, but an institution can only stay relevant if it thinks about the future.”

The Year Is 2014

As Laura pulls up to the Lower School drop-off, Ms. L opens the car door with a ‘Good Morning!” calling each child by name. After the kids disembark with their backpacks and lunches, Laura rolls down her window. “Be careful on the ice!” she calls. The kids wave. “Don’t forget to eat all of your protein snack!” she reminds. Other cars are in line behind her. Their occupants call to their children as well, if not today, then certainly on other days. “I love you!” she shouts finally, and rolls up the window, knowing that she has left her children in the care of warm, welcoming people who know them well and make them feel like they are entering their home away from home.

As she pulls out of the driveway, she spies in her rearview mirror Beechwood, the Victorian mansion, perched high on the hill.

Beechwood. It is not so imposing, now.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.