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London Students Learn About George Peabody's Roots in Exchange Program

The wealthy philanthropist born in modern-day Peabody first established a trust fund that provides housing for the poor 150 years ago and now students who live there get to see George Peabody's roots.

Mayor Ted Bettencourt meets with exchange students from the George Peabody Trust in London on Tuesday. Credit: John Castelluccio
Mayor Ted Bettencourt meets with exchange students from the George Peabody Trust in London on Tuesday. Credit: John Castelluccio
Nine high school students who live in affordable housing in London thanks to 20th century wealthy philanthropist George Peabody, got to travel to his hometown this week and see some of Peabody's early roots as well as the city now named in honor of him.

The George Peabody Trust, which was first created by Peabody in 1862, established a student exchange program with Peabody Veterans Memorial High School more than 20 years ago, but the program lapsed for several years, starting in 2005.

It wasn't until last year, on the 150th anniversary of the trust, that the relationship was reinvigorated and students started visiting Peabody's birthplace again.

Students and chaperones flew in from London this past Saturday and plan to cram in numerous visits until their return flight on Saturday, which included a stop down to Peabody City Hall and chat with Mayor Ted Bettencourt on Tuesday.

Students were curious what it was like to run a city and be the mayor, and once they learned of Bettencourt's basketball history, they of course asked if he'd shoot some hoops with them as well.

He smiled, explaining he and his hometown's strong ties to sports.

Bettencourt explained that being the mayor is often a 24/7 job year round, requiring him to be ready for any situation that might arise and need his attention, and as a result, it's tough to strike a balance with family life at times, especially with three young daughters.

It can also be a thankless job at times, but being involved in the inner-workings of the city is what he loves about it all, he said, adding that he couldn't do it without the constant support of his family.

He noted the city was identified by Money Magazine as one of the Top 100 Cities in which to live in the United States and mentioned opportunities students have to be involved in civic life, such as the annual Student Government Day.

He also shared the story of how 20 years ago, his wife Andrea was actually elected Mayor for Student Government Day while he served as the Recreation Director instead.

"Education is important," he said. "It opens up all types of areas for you... Having a degree opens up many doors for you."

The discussion turned to the cost of education briefly -- it's about 9,000 pounds or $18,000 per year in the United Kingdom to attend college, they said, but many recent graduates similarly find it difficult now to secure well paying jobs.

Bettencourt pointed out the three portraits he has hanging in his office -- George Peabody, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. He said Lincoln is one of his political heroes and he'll actually be dressing up in top hat and sideburns for the annual Halloween party at the senior center Wednesday.

Students also asked what his three young daughters think about dad being the mayor. "They love it," he replied, but added there may come times as they get older where it's not always as much fun. 

Bettencourt admitted that while he's familiar with George Peabody's roots, he doesn't know too much of his work overseas -- maybe there's a mayoral exchange program to be he had, he mused with a laugh.

The students, Bettencourt and his wife will meet up again on Friday for dinner at the George Peabody House.

Local historian and executive director of the Peabody Historical Society Bill Power, who's often involved in anything related to Peabody's favorite son, is leading the tour group this week around area sites named after Peabody.

Power was among the American contingent to visit London last year for the 150th anniversary celebration and says he's glad to act as tour guide now.

Stops this week include the Peabody Institute Libraries in Peabody, Danvers and Georgetown, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and some local tourist sites too -- they are visiting Salem on Halloween.

The students also met with peers over at PVMHS and the Peabody Learning Academy over at the Northshore Mall. Retired Peabody teachers Andrew Metropolis and Frank Hardy, who helped start the exchange program back in the day, joined the group as well.

As for the George Peabody Trust, it does more than just provide housing for families -- 20,000 homes for 55,000 people -- there are also job training programs, family and parenting support, health and well being initiatives and numerous types of activities for all ages of residents.

At the time, Peabody established the trust to "ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy in this great metropolis (London)."

You can find out more about the trust online here.

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