Phyllis Wyeth: She made a farsighted idea come true for hundreds of St. George youth

Phyllis Mills Wyeth died this past January 14 at her home in Chadds Ford, Pa., with her husband Jamie by her side. Obituaries published following her death rightly celebrated her as a philanthropist who generously supported the arts and environmental causes and who advocated for the rights of handicapped and disabled people. But for the community of St. George, where she was a seasonal resident, Wyeth’s most memorable and honored contribution will be her very concrete impact on the lives of our youth through Herring Gut Learning Center.

Founded by Wyeth in 1997 as Marshall Point Sea Farm, Herring Gut embodies Wyeth’s conviction that a fishing community in today’s world will not survive the effects of changing conditions unless its youth become knowledgeable about, and well-grounded in, the technologies, science and economics of aquaculture. Coincidentally, she realized some important truths about education.

In the beginning, the kind of educational program Wyeth sought for St. George students was termed “alternative education,” something reserved for students at risk of failing academically. Jim Masterson, the original director of the St. George Alternative Education program worked closely with Wyeth on developing the Herring Gut model. “In the years I knew Phyllis she tried her best to truly provide a wonderful experiential education to those ‘at-risk’ students,” Masterson says, adding parenthetically, “Of course Phyllis was Phyllis—strong-willed and mischievous with a good sense of humor—you definitely didn’t get in her way or talk her out of much. She was a hoot.”

Over the years, as the Herring Gut project’s curricula and reach expanded, it and other programs like it began to shift educators’ thinking even more profoundly. “Phyllis Wyeth believed that all students can learn, that students learn best by doing, and that place and community should ground, shape, and inspire curriculum,” says Mike Felton, the superintendent of the St. George School. “Ms. Wyeth’s vision shaped Herring Gut Learning Center and forced educators to rethink how we approach teaching and learning. Rather than ask students to conform to a traditional classroom and curriculum, change the classroom and curriculum to engage, challenge, and inspire students. Let learning take root in the community’s shore and soil, its history and traditions. Let students work with their hands, build and create, take responsibility for their learning and share that learning with the community.”

Jaden Petersdorf, from 2013 to 2016 a student in the St. George alternative education program, is only one of many former Herring Gut students who continue to value their involvement at Herring Gut. “I was lucky to be able to go to Herring Gut,” he says today. But as Peter Harris, the chair of Herring Gut’s Board of Trustees notes, Wyeth wanted Herring Gut to be more than a lucky opportunity. “Phyllis was a true visionary. She didn’t just have a farsighted idea, she made it come true for hundreds of kids here. I loved watching how excited she was when a 7th or 8th grader told her what they had learned.”­—JW
(Thanks to Sonja Schmanska for her help in preparing this tribute to Phyllis Wyeth.)