Peter Rockwell '58, P'82 Seals His Commitment to Haverford in Stone
The Climbing Stone, created on campus and gifted to Haverford in 1990, sits beside Magill Library. “I like to do sculpture for people to climb on,” Peter Rockwell ’58, P’82 asserts. Why? He cannot say exactly. “I just do. It’s sort of fun.”
For a man who has spent his entire career working with fixed objects, Peter has been able to imbue them with a great sense of movement, whether they are figures of dancers, or whimsical monsters on which to climb. As a child, Peter was fascinated by acrobats at the circus; and when he was a freshman at Haverford he competed as a fencer. Ironically, that love of play and movement inadvertently influenced his career as a sculptor. During the second semester of his first year, Peter was stabbed in the chest during a fencing competition against Princeton. After being rushed to nearby Bryn Mawr Hospital, he was examined by Dr. John Bernard Flick (coincidentally a Haverford graduate himself, from the Class of 1939). Flick had, very fortuitously, been reading the latest studies on treating knife wounds and knew it was best not to operate in this case. His decision saved Peter’s life.
Upon returning to campus, Peter considered alternative activities to fencing. One of his favorite courses was in Medieval history. But, intrigued by sculpting because of a course his mother, Mary Rockwell, had taken back home in Lenox, MA, he enrolled in an independent study with art professor J. Wallace Kelly. In his senior year he received credit for a projectbased course, making sculpture—the first time art had been more than an extracurricular activity at the College in decades.
The youngest of three children of famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, and with one brother a writer and the other an artist, Peter was determined to set a different path for himself. He majored in English and intended to become a teacher. Instead, he fell in love with sculpture. After graduating from Haverford, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia to continue his artistic studies. Following Kelly’s belief that stone should be carved directly (rather than from a copy made in another medium), Peter became skilled in the technique.
A 1961 fellowship from PAFA gave Peter the opportunity to study in Rome. By then he was married to high school sweetheart Cynthia (Cinny) Ide—a classmate of his from The Putney School near his family’s home in Arlington, VT—and had a toddler, Geoffrey. The young family set off for a sixmonth stay in Italy. They never left.
Over time the family grew to total six, with another son, Tom, and twins, Mary and John. Peter honed his sculpting techniques working mostly with bronze and marble, teaching, guiding tours of Rome, and exhibiting his work. Living and working among some of the world’s oldest sculpture, he became an expert in historical stone carving techniques—expertise that would lead to the 1993 publication of his book, The Art of Stoneworking: A Reference Guide, a seminal text on the subject.
Before long, it was time for eldest son Geoffrey to consider colleges. Living abroad, he found that Haverford was rare among U.S. colleges at the time for its receptivity and accessibility to international students. Geoffrey graduated from the College in 1982 with a degree in philosophy, but the Haverford-Rockwell legacy did not end there.
In 1990, Peter was invited to campus for a semester-long visiting professorship in sculpture. There were some changes since his own time as a student, including the move to co-education and awarding credit for courses in the arts. Nine students enrolled in the semester-long course, a requirement for which was to create a sculpture for the campus. “When I taught [at Haverford], I was very impressed with the quality of the students. I’ve taught for several college programs [in Italy], and the students at Haverford really impressed me,” he remembered. He and the students spent months creating The Climbing Stone, reducing a three-ton block of Indiana limestone to a tangle of happy-looking monsters, with footholds and passageways for crawling.
The design, in part, maybe traced to Cinny and her experience at Haverford College. When Peter was an undergraduate, Cinny taught nearby at Haverford Friends School and would bring her students to the College campus to play on the osage orange tree on the side of Magill Library known as The Climbing Tree. Though the tree fell many years ago, according to the College’s Arboretum website, “it has continued to grow in its reclining state and has become a living sculpture.” The tree that Cinny introduced to her students years earlier served as Peter’s inspiration for The Climbing Stone, and to this day children from the community—and more than a few Haverford students—enjoy this fixture on campus. The Climbing Stone is dedicated to the memory of J. Wallace Kelly.
One student in particular has had a very special connection to The Climbing Stone. Alethea (Thea) Rockwell, Geoffrey’s daughter, majored in history of art at Bryn Mawr College and graduated from Haverford in 2012. Following Thea’s graduation, the Rockwells decided to make an enduring commitment to Haverford by establishing a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT). Peter and Cinny felt gratitude toward Haverford and shared a strong interest in supporting it for the future.
Working with Director of Gift Planning Steve Kavanaugh, and in consultation with their financial advisor, the Rockwells established a CRUT designed to pay them a percentage of the assets in the trust for life, after which the remainder will become a permanent part of Haverford’s endowment, benefiting arts at the College in perpetuity—much like The Climbing Stone. “It was a very simple thing to do,” Peter recalled of the process. “Three generations went here,” he said, “and we all enjoyed it. So I think it’s a good place to support. My wife felt that way too.” In a 2012 email to Kavanaugh, Cinny wrote, “Haverford’s generosity and support to both Geoffrey and Thea played a significant role in our decision to make this gift.” Cinny passed away in 2013.
If you ask Peter why he applied to Haverford, he will tell you that he liked that the application did not require an autobiography. “I couldn’t think of anything interesting I’d ever done in my life,” he recalls humbly. It is a claim he no longer can make.