Jessie Dew Ball was born in 1884 at Cressfield on Ball’s Creek, Northumberland County, Virginia. Her family was one of Virginia’s finest: George Washington’s mother, Mary, was a relative. Educated in county schools and with one year at Farmville State College, she began to teach as soon as she graduated. She received a Life Certificate to teach any grade in Virginia, a certificate which was later accepted by the state of California when she moved there with her family at the age of twenty-four.
Her girlhood home on Ball’s Neck was in prime duck shooting country that attracted many enthusiasts of the sport. Among these was Alfred Ireneé duPont, of Nemours near Wilmington, and on one of his trips he and young Jessie struck up a strong friendship. The two so disparate in age shared many enthusiams, including the world of business. Jessie was already driving her father’s buggy about the county to collect his fees as Commonwealth’s Attorney, receiving her pay in a percentage of collections. The sophisticated financier and the lively young business woman began a correspondence that continued for more than twenty years. When Jessie was vice principal of a school in San Diego, Mr. duPont boarded a train and put an end to her academic career. They were quietly married by an Episcopal clergyman and returned to the East to settle in the beautiful house at Nemours.
The bride and groom were a perfect team. Mr. duPont was growing deaf, and at his request Mrs. duPont set up an office next to his so that she might learn every aspect of his business and of his charitable enterprises. Soon she was accompanying him to board meetings and conferences; she was his “ears” and his trusted advisor. Together they planned the use of Mr. duPont’s large fortune for the benefit of society with the advice and assistance of Jessie’s brother, Edward Ball.
After her husband’s death in 1935, Mrs. duPont faithfully carried out the plans they had made. First among these was the creation of The Alfred I. duPont Institute for Crippled Children at Nemours, opened in 1941. Significant gifts were made to to many schools, colleges, universities, museums and churches, and between sixty and seventy-five young men and women were sent to college annually. Among her myriad interests education remained dominant. Her years as a teacher had given her an unshakable faith in the power of learning to free the individual spirit for first class citizenship.
Jessie duPont was a prodigious worker because she enjoyed what she did, but she also knew how to relax. Her closest friends felt that some of her happiest times were spent at Stratford. Organized with a Board representative of every state, the “Stratties”, as Jessie named them, set about the seemingly impossible task of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars at the very bottom of the Depression.
Because of Stratford’s remote location, no hotels were available to the ladies for their semi-annual meetings. They therefore built the simplest possible log cabins for their own use, heated only by stoves or fireplaces. Miss Jessie called hers “Owl’s Roost” because of the late hours that she kept. There, when the business of the day was finished, she and her cabin mate, Mrs. Granville Gray Valentine of Richmond, would entertain the other members of the Board. Mrs. duPont was a born mimic and her stories were told with professional skill. New Directors were asked to perform as a sort of initiation, and many a neophyte Strattie wished herself safely back at home rather than having to follow such an act as Miss Jessie’s.
In 1935 Stratford, beautifully restored, was officially dedicated to the public, its mortgage paid off. At Stratford, as in every other endeavor touched by her generosity, her vision for its role in human enlightenment, particularly that of the young, was large. In 1950 she wrote to a friend, “Though the first desire in the mind of all Southerners is that there should be a lasting, great memorial to General Lee, I have always felt that there are also other compelling reasons why Stratford should be preserved. Being operated as a living Colonial plantation, it is one of the few places in the country which can teach the present and future generations of youngsters the self-contained way of life adopted by the Fathers of our Country.”
In her will Mrs. duPont established the Jessie Ball duPont Religious, Charitable and Educational Fund. She directed its trustees to devote its earnings to the institutions to which she had contributed personally, those closest to her heart. Stratford was one of them. The Library and its endowment are her gifts to us.
The Jessie Ball DuPont Library is a memorial to a great lady whose long life recorded an almost incredible variety of human service. She will be remembered for her contributions to educations which opened new vistas to thousands of young people. That our affection and admiration for this noble friend should be expressed in a library at Stratford seems to us eminently appropriate.
Jessie Ball duPont (1884-1970)
Compiled and edited by Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek and Ralph B. Draughon, Jr.Copyright © 1985, The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Stratford, Virginia