Long-ago gifts keep on giving
After more than 50 years of philanthropy, The Fellows of UND merges with UND Alumni Association & Foundation
This is a story of education philanthropy’s deep roots — a story of how a few seeds planted early can grow into a garden of giving and a legacy of love for learning.
Young Rich Becker was in a pickle.
A semester away from his UND business degree in 1964, he had come up short on cash and didn’t know how he would cover his final tuition bill.
“I didn’t know how I was going to finish school,” the now silver-streaked Becker said last week, recalling with a smile the very real challenge he’d faced 58 years ago. “I already had tapped every resource I had, and I didn’t know where I was going to get this money.”
But that was before he stopped by the office of a longtime friend for a chat and a cup of coffee. The friend was the affable Tom Clifford, then-vice president of finance for UND and former dean of the business school.
The first time the mentor had invited the young man in was when Becker was just a boy selling Christmas cards door to door in the neighborhood.
“I knew the Cliffords growing up,” Becker said. “Tom just fit in like an old shoe, and he was always fun. All through my school years, I always had an open door to him, and we’d just talk.”
So on this day, Becker had shared the worries on his mind, and Clifford asked him, “Well, how much do you think you’d need?” Becker shrugged his shoulders and guessed it might be about $500 before he was free and clear, and Clifford told him to stop by the next day after he’d had time to think.
Becker said he showed up the next day expecting Clifford to say he was still working on it, or “No, I don’t think I’ll be able to help you in that area, Rich.”
Instead, Clifford reached into his desk drawer and handed Becker a sealed envelope. Clifford had made a few calls.
“Here, put this in your pocket and use it wisely,” Becker recalled Clifford saying. “And later on, when you graduate, you can pay it back when you can.”
So that’s just what Becker did. He graduated that spring, paid his final tuition bill, got a job and paid back the loan.
And then some.
A formal giving tree
That kindness from a friend — and likely a few strangers — had helped Becker out in a pinch, so there was no question what he’d do when, years later, Clifford approached the successful marketing consultant and state legislator about joining The Fellows of the University of North Dakota.
Clifford was UND’s president in 1970 when he and a number of close friends and associates — heavy hitters such as George Starcher, Fred Orth, Edgar Berg and W.E. Koenker — had formed the organization. (The UND Foundation had not yet come into existence and wouldn’t until eight years later.)
The primary role of The Fellows was to advance and promote the welfare and best interests of the University, its students and staff, and to provide a means to accept, control and administer gifts and bequests for the benefit of UND.
“The Fellows have a special place in the philanthropic history of this great University,” said DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of the UND Alumni Association & Foundation. “They took what had been an informal relationship between Grand Forks and the University and established partnerships within the community. They encouraged investment from businesses, friends and alumni of UND, laying the groundwork for the UND Foundation.”
In its early years, The Fellows organization was extremely active, receiving gifts and bequests and using funds for a number of campus projects, including new construction, additions and renovations, as well as other projects such as graduate student research and seminars. It also was active in buying real estate — taking out loans to buy property near campus or actively seeking out bequests, all with an eye to serving the long-term interests of UND.
By the early 1990s, The Fellows already had contributed tens of thousands of dollars in support of projects ranging from a law library addition and a new hangar at the Grand Forks Airport to new equipment and renovation of the Athletic Department’s medical training room as well as renovations to the Edgar Berg Learning Center & Computer Learning Lab.
The vitality of the organization, Carlson Zink said, was connected directly to its membership and University leadership.
And the good goes on
But the number of active members declined as the years went on, The Fellows’ founding members passed away and the UND Foundation took on a leading fundraising role. Though a push to grow membership in the early 2000s was initially successful, it didn’t last, and the once-robust board of trustees gave way to the minimum required by bylaws.
For the past 15 years or so, The Fellows continued to support the University through scholarships, a few faculty salaries and discretionary spending for UND administration, Carlson Zink said. Talks about the organization’s future took place as early as 2015, and discussions of a possible merger with the Alumni Foundation began in 2017. But the talks stalled due to a number of leadership changes at the University.
In October 2020, under President Andrew Armacost’s guidance, The Fellows finally felt comfortable making the transition and voted to merge with UNDAAF. The merger was approved by trustees in February 2022, and the papers were signed in July.
And just last week, trustees Becker, along with his wife, Joanne, and Dr. Casey Ryan, as well as Fellows member Judge Wade Webb — whose father, Judge Rodney Webb, was a member before him — were invited to a luncheon at the president’s home to celebrate both the merger and the bright future of philanthropy at UND.
Though close to $3.5 million in land, cash and other interests has been transferred, both the president and Carlson Zink say The Fellows will continue to play an informal advisory role in the future.
“The Fellows had a passion for giving students the best experience possible at UND,” Carlson Zink said. “My pledge to the board of trustees of The Fellows is that we share that passion, and their organization’s legacy will endure through the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.”
President Armacost agreed. “The Fellows were so focused on finding ways to support the University, largely through the acquisition of property, and we clearly can see how much that hard work paid off through the years and now into the future,” he said. “Certainly, I appreciate all that they’ve done. The legacy of The Fellows has to be understood and appreciated by everyone on campus.”
At the luncheon, the president offered a toast to The Fellows and presented them, as well as UND Special Collections Archivist Curt Hanson, with presidential coins and a second gift — a miniature statue in the likeness of the UND Fighting Hawk — created by local artist and metalsmith David Badman of Badman Design.
As the guests turned the coins over in their hands, the president explained how they are stamped with the Eternal Flame, “which represents an important symbol of learning on our campus.”
“But across the top is a phrase from the alma mater that says we raise our grateful song, and that’s a way for us to say thank you,” he continued. “In roughly 50-plus years of great service, The Fellows have made UND a better place. As a result, there are a lot of good things happening at the University — and I see this merger as another opportunity to keep things moving forward.”