William Pemberton, ’20, throws his racket onto the court.
He rests his hand against the large white wall scuffed with black circles. Dipping his head, he curses to himself. He messed up the point.
He adjusts his goggles, and he’s back. Gripping his racket in his right hand, his left hand supports his shot, consistent in form.
Sweat beads drip down his face but are swiftly absorbed by his Blair Academy squash shirt from the boarding school in Blairstown Township, New Jersey.
“Squash is a mental game,” said Colin Hussey, ’20, who is his opponent and friend.
To Pemberton, squash is more than a game, but it was not always this way.
“That has to be a vegetable,” Pemberton said when he first heard of the sport in the eighth grade.
At that point, he did not realize how much it would alter his life.
Pemberton, the first member in his family to attend college, is the president of the class of 2020. By the spring semester of his first year, Pemberton also became facility supervisor at Taylor Gym, a TRAC fellow and a Hawks peer mentor.
Kevin Clayton, ’84, the chair of the board of trustees, and his wife Lisa Clayton support Blair Academy students with scholarships. Pemberton is the first Blair Academy student the Claytons decided to continue sponsoring through college.
Growing up in downtown Chicago with a single mother, Pemberton faced adversity.
Pemberton said it was just him and his mother, Cherese Brown, for the first 10 years of his life. At times, their electricity or gas would go out. Their financial situation caused them to move around the city. Switching schools left him unable to maintain relationships, and he did not learn fundamental math until eighth grade.
Unable to provide a tutor for Pemberton, Brown said she didn’t want her son to pursue his education in Chicago’s public education system.
So she prayed.
“My mom believed that by making the right decisions, living a holy life, praying and believing in God, ultimately the situations we were faced with would be turned around,” Pemberton said.
Kozminski Academy in Chicago finally provided him stability from sixth to eighth grade, where he began “developing a name for himself.”
Brown said her prayers were answered by Kozminski Academy’s vice principal, who believed Pemberton should join MetroSquash. The program combines athletics with academic rigor, allowing children to play squash competitively and receive social, emotional and academic support, expense-free.
David Kay, the MetroSquash chief executive officer, said Pemberton thrived in the program.
“William is a force of nature (and) one-of-a-kind,” he said.
Pemberton, who is now a mentor for the program, said it pointed him toward boarding school, though his mother was not initially fond of the idea.
“I certainly did not want him to be in a situation where he was…the minority,” Brown said.
Yet, after learning more about the opportunity, she became open to the idea.
Pemberton’s first plane ride was his visit to Blair Academy. At 13 years old, he decided to move 12 hours away from home to New Jersey.
“Sometimes it’s scary how independent he is,” Brown said.
Ryan Pagotto, the associate head of Blair Academy and former dean of admissions, said Pemberton was already polished, confident, articulate and eloquent, even as a freshman.
Pagotto said some were even taken aback by his “self-assuredness” and “strident approach.”
Throughout his time at Blair Academy, Pagotto said, Pemberton became more reflective and willing to recognize his weaknesses. Brown said he quickly fit into the environment, developed friendships and welcomed academic challenges. He served as the captain of the varsity squash team for two years.
“None of what he’s done has been delivered to him on a silver platter,” Brown said. “He deserves all of the fruits of his labor.”
Chris Fortunato, the Blair Academy Head of School, said whether navigating through difficult or celebratory times on campus, Pemberton was always there for everyone.
“There’s a sense of obligation to the people around him… that he feels deeply and genuinely,” Fortunato said.
Coining the nickname “the reverend” at Blair Academy, Pagotto said it was evident Pemberton’s good handshake, winning smile and charisma had always been present.
Clayton saw Pemberton on his freshman move-in day at Blair Academy.
“I could tell by the look in his eyes, by the words that came out of his mouth, by his pride and his heart that this was a special person,” Clayton said.
Their relationship continued during Pemberton’s time at Blair Academy. The two spoke regularly, and Pemberton invited Clayton to several school functions.
“I knew I had someone who was behind me,” Pemberton said.
Clayton called his friend Henry Odi, ’98G, the deputy vice president for equity and community and associate provost for academic diversity, during Pemberton’s senior year at the boarding school and told him about Pemberton’s potential for Lehigh.
Odi decided to have a phone call with Pemberton.
“The first impression confirmed the steps I took were the right steps,” Odi said. “I was impressed with his discipline and his mannerism, his way of thinking and his ability to focus and have a good sense of where he would like to go.”
To Pemberton, Lehigh was another risk that he ultimately decided to take. He felt he needed to develop a name for himself again, so he decided to run for class president.
“I’m just honored and privileged and humbled to know him and to invest in his future,” Clayton said. “He’s going to light the world on fire.”
As he continues his journey, Pemberton said he will always have tremendous love for the place that taught him how to resist adversity. He said he wants to move back to Chicago after retiring to rectify the issues that exist in the education system.
“I know that there’s another kid out there, like me, from Chicago, who can be just as successful,” Pemberton said. “They just need the resources.”
The way Pemberton plays a pick-up game of squash parallels how he lives his life — focused, precise and exceptionally determined.