Thursday, July 9, 2020

He might seem like the least likely candidate to fund a full-ride scholarship, much less 33 of them. But frugal carpenter Dale Schroeder wanted his savings to benefit young people who dreamed of attending college.

Schroeder, whose father abandoned his family during the Depression, couldn’t afford college. Because of this, he wanted to help others who’d experienced early adversity. After working for 67 years at Moehl Millwork in Des Moines, he had amassed a nest egg of nearly $3 million.  

Before he died in 2005, he asked his friends Walt and Judy Tomenga and lawyer Stephen Nielsen to use his wealth to send small-town Iowa kids to Iowa’s public universities. Tippie alumni Katelyn Wheeldon (BBA16), Jenna Herr (BBA13), and Benjamin Kopp (BSE12/MD17/MBA17) are among the beneficiaries of his generosity.  

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, rural high school graduates are less likely to enroll in college than urban or suburban students. They’re also more likely to drop out. Often, they are first-generation college students, which was true for Wheeldon and Herr.

The Dale Schroeder Scholarship committee sought rural students who’d overcome significant struggles akin to Schroeder’s. While the financial support was instrumental, the committee put a lot of effort into supporting these students along the way. One way they did this was by bringing scholarship winners together every summer for an annual dinner providing advice, inspiration, and support.

“They took everyone under their wings, and truly dedicated themselves to helping us through the process of entering college and the real world,” Kopp said. At 13, he lost his mother to a 10-year battle with cancer. “Walt and Judy made themselves available as mentors and coaches to provide guidance and support that they were unable to find elsewhere.”

Herr grew up in a single parent home after her mother was incarcerated. Then, at 16, she became a single parent herself. “Walt and Judy Tomenga became like a second set of parents to me,” she said. “I visited their home, I spent holidays with them, they sent care packages, we talked on the phone and identified strategies and resources to manage academic and parenting stress.”

In 2019, Herr received her MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and works as a senior risk and compliance specialist at Kearney. Her daughter is now 11. “This scholarship gave me the freedom and the security to dream. It gave me the community and guidance I needed to grow, and the confidence and pride to lead,” Herr said.

Wheeldon grew up in a supportive home, but her family’s financial difficulties were compounded when a fire nearly destroyed their scrap metal and used car business. Now a financial and accounting consultant at Riveron, Wheeldon found the annual dinners energizing. “I was not the only scholar who felt sometimes we do not ‘fit in’ with the people in our day-to-day lives. Through conversations, we realized this is because we are all focused on paying it forward every day. Others may not think the same way we do,” Wheeldon said, referring to the scholarship committee’s encouragement “to pay forward what we have received.” 

Kopp is currently in his third of five years of orthopedic surgery residency at the University of Texas-Austin. If he hadn’t gotten the financial support for his undergraduate engineering degree at Iowa, he would have focused on paying off his loans instead of pursuing advanced degrees.

“One thing that became apparent from the scholarship was the enormous impact one person with little education and a modest income can have by living for others,” Kopp said. The call to “pay it forward” continues to resonate with him and, he explains, "I will always be looking for opportunities to do so.”

“Thank you, Dale. You’ve changed my life.” Watch the Today Show segment featuring Wheeldon and Herr.


This article first appeared in the summer issue of Tippie Magazine.