Greater Denfeld Foundation thriving after 50 years

Peyton Bradbury, left, was awarded a Marie V. Saltwick Scholarship and the Greater Denfeld Foundation Health Science Award at Denfeld Honors Night in May. He’s in the nursing program at Umass Boston. Xander Schroeder, right, received an Armond Hauge Scholarship, a Greater Denfeld Foundation Award and the Matt Kero #4 Memorial Scholarship. He’s at the University of Minnesota Duluth studying computer science.

Public school students in western Duluth who pursue post-secondary education have found a wealth of scholarship money available in recent decades. It’s all because of groundwork laid 50 years ago, and the generosity of generations of Denfeld High School graduates.

The Greater Denfeld Foundation has been reducing the financial burden of college for Denfeld students since 1972, and has grown to be one of the largest public school scholarship funds in the country. It presently manages more than $8 million in assets according to board president Gary Eckenberg, who graduated from Denfeld in 1968. More than $2 million in scholarships have been awarded to date.

How has the foundation of a small public high school in northern Minnesota accumulated such a sum? The answer is small contributions by many people, and large contributions by two unlikely millionaire alums.

The Greater Denfeld Foundation was incorporated in 1971 by a group of Denfeld employees and alumni. The school had previously established scholarship funds to honor a pair of teachers — Leona Thomey, who died in a military plane crash in 1945, and Lenore Snodgrass, who died in 1953 — but the funds eventually ran dry.

The Greater Denfeld Foundation was created to give out a few one-time $150 scholarships starting in 1972. Its original goal was to raise $250,000 in scholarship assets, and after 29 years of modest growth the foundation had $175,000 in the bank. In 2001 a pair of major donations within a five-year period from two esteemed Denfeld alums expanded the foundation’s financial assets, vastly exceeding its original fundraising goal and turning it into the scholarship powerhouse it is today.

Marie Saltwick

The first major donation came in 2001 after the passing of Marie Saltwick, a 1925 Denfeld grad and distinguished teacher who spent 40 years teaching biology in the school’s historic building, retiring in 1971 as the Greater Denfeld Foundation was forming. She served on the board for about a decade.

As a retired teacher who never married, Saltwick was not thought of as someone who might have hidden wealth. She was purportedly a savvy investor, however, and led a modest life. A particularly good stock tip from Denfeld band teacher Lloyd Swartley is said to have led Saltwick to invest in Polaroid Corp. at an opportune time, leading to her fortune.

She bequeathed a whopping $2.7 million to the foundation. There was more to come.

Armond Hauge

Armond Hauge graduated from Denfeld in 1946. Like Saltwick, he was an unlikely millionaire. He worked as an auto mechanic at Sterling Motors, which later became Ryland Ford. But he also had a knack for real estate and stock market investments.

After his death in 2006, his $3.2 million estate was left to the foundation to establish a new scholarship fund. He placed a great deal of value in hard work and maintained a steadfast work ethic even as a young child — he began working at the age of 6 and was gifted a bike by his employer five years later for never missing a day of work. In that spirit, his scholarship fund is intended for students who demonstrate a commitment to hard work during their high school years.

A Lasting Legacy

Greater Denfeld Foundation scholarship funds are managed by the US Bank Wealth Management Department, and foundation board members meet with the bank quarterly to discuss the financial health of the funds. Jerry Zanko, a former foundation president who sits on the scholarship committee, said that the foundation is tasked with not spending the principal of the funds, and because of that, the Saltwick and Hauge gifts will help send Denfeld students to college forever.

“[The funds] are in good hands,” Zanko said. “We’d love to give out more money than we do, but it’s not sustainable.”

During Denfeld Honors Night in spring 2022, the foundation awarded $151,158 to Denfeld seniors. Thirty-five students received the Armond Hauge scholarship, which is worth $3,000 renewable for four years, and 15 received the Marie Saltwick scholarship, which is also worth $3,000 renewable for four years.

Assuming all of the Hauge and Saltwick scholarships are renewed for all four years, the total amount awarded to the class of 2022 will amount to $511,158. Eighteen more scholarship awards of varying amounts were awarded through 13 other scholarships managed by the foundation, which are all one-time annual awards with their own criteria for things like academic performance, financial need, intended college major and even extracurricular interest.

“Watching the graduates and the stuff they’ve been through, the economic challenges and two years of covid, it’s inspiring to see how many talented and dedicated students there are,” Zanko said. “The average scholarship applicant, whether they come from means or no means, shows the same drive and determination, and it’s inspiring.”

A Few More Million

An additional scholarship fund of note for Denfeld students is the Jack Moon Scholarship, established in 2005 for Denfeld graduates interested in pursuing a trade. It is named after John Wallace “Jack” Moon, an attorney and prominent real estate investor in Duluth who graduated from Denfeld in 1946. He died in a car accident in 2001, and left a sum of money in his will to establish a scholarship fund for Denfeld graduates.

Not affiliated with the Greater Denfeld Foundation, the Jack Moon Foundation began distributing scholarships in 2005, and today has assets worth $4.5 million. The foundation awards up to $4,000 a year to selected graduates who intend to study at a Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan trade school or technical college.

Multi-generational Connection

The number of individual awards and amount of money available to Denfeld students is the work of generous contributions from Denfeld alumni, but the Greater Denfeld Foundation doesn’t actively solicit donations. People have come forward independently with a sincere desire to bequest, Zanko said. To this day, the scholarship committee is in talks with multiple individuals who are interested in making significant contributions to the foundation.

The enthusiastic desire of Denfeld alumni to give back to their alma mater gives credence to the positive effect the school has had on many students over several generations. Eckenberg attributes the positive alumni engagement in part to reverence for the teaching staff, many of whom, like Marie Saltwick, have committed themselves to the school and its students for 30 to 40 years.

Similarly, he feels the multi-generational connection that many students and staff have to the school is a big reason why many decide to give back to it.

Denfeld — originally called Duluth Industrial High School — was founded in 1905. The current building was built in 1926, and it’s been an educational monument of West Duluth ever since. Thousands of students have completed their high school education there, and many of them were not the first or last in their family to walk its halls and eventually sign their name in the clocktower as a graduating senior.

“There’s a commitment to the school on the part of not only the kids, but it’s handed down to them from generations of parents. My dad was a Denfeld grad and I had teachers that he had, and they were wonderful.” Eckenberg said. His two daughters also attended Denfeld. “The continuity is intense, there’s just such a connection to this school.”

Jayden Erie is a Denfeld graduate and recipient of the Armond Hauge scholarship from the class of 2020. He is entering his junior year at Illinois Wesleyan University.

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