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Campus & Community

A Legacy of Paying It Forward

June 8, 2016

Milton Huston, and his great-grandniece, Elizabeth Peckham
Milton Huston and his great-grandniece, Elizabeth Peckham.

When Elizabeth Peckham walks across the stage at Commencement, she’ll be continuing a legacy that started over 80 years ago with her grandmother Marjorie Barker Gallagher  and her great-great-uncle, Milton Huston.

Milton was a mining engineer and world traveler, but his home and heart was in Philadelphia. An avid collector of exotic animals — he kept monkeys and parrots on his porch — Milton donated one of the first spider monkeys to the Philadelphia Zoo. When he found out his niece, Marjorie, was interested in going to college, he wasted no time saying that he would pay her tuition and invited her to stay with him and the rest of her extended family while she studied.

“She really wanted to study law,” said Anne Peckham, Marjorie’s daughter. Milton discouraged Marjorie from studying criminal justice, feeling that the law was a difficult place for a woman in the 1930s. Milton instead suggested the home economics program at what was then called the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry.

“My uncle said, ‘I don’t want you to pay me back. But what I would like you to do is send at least one other person to college in your lifetime.’ So that was the agreement they struck,” said Anne.

That agreement paid off. Despite graduating in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, Marjorie lived quite comfortably as a restaurant manager for many years. Proud of the utility of her Drexel education, Marjorie wrote a $20 check (a value of around $300 today) to the university every year during the 30’s and 40’s.

Continuing the tradition started by her uncle, Marjorie sent her four children to college, each with the promise that they, too, send at least one other person in their lifetime. Marjorie’s daughter Anne made good on that promise, sending her daughter, Elizabeth, to college debt-free.

Like her grandmother, Elizabeth is interested in the criminal justice system. But unlike Marjorie, Elizabeth got to follow that path at Drexel, in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at the College of Arts and Sciences. Elizabeth will be graduating magna cum laude and she’s received an award for Excellence in the Humanities. Following graduation, Elizabeth will be a full-time research assistant for one of her professors, Jordan Hyatt, PhD.

Elizabeth didn’t know that her grandmother’s dreams were so closely aligned with her own until recently.

“I unfortunately never got to meet my grandmother,” Elizabeth said. “She passed away when I was a few months old. But my whole life, my mom has been telling me that I’m a lot like her. I didn’t know this was what she wanted and I didn’t know this was where she went. To end up on the same path, just reaffirms how much I am like her.”

Like her mother, her grandmother, and her great-great-uncle, Elizabeth plans to keep the legacy of paying it forward alive.

“I am proud to be part of a family that recognizes that education is one of the keys to living a full and productive and meaningful life,” Anne said. “It means a great deal to me that it runs though my family, that it’s been a common thread for years, and that it's continuing.”