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"Handing out more than a grant:
Retired exec doesn't just give scholarships, he builds personal ties with those he assists"

by Jon Anderson
November 03, 2005
Chicago Tribune

Ernest Wentcher, a retired insurance executive, was crossing a busy street in the Loop when a great idea hit him.

"I had been listening to friends of mine talking about their rotten kids and the difficulties of getting them into college," he recalled Tuesday, sitting in his retirement office, an art-filled suite on an upper floor of an apartment building on North Michigan Avenue.

That kind of gruff talk rubbed him the wrong way.

"A lot of other kids simply don't have the money to get into college," he thought to himself.

So, eight years ago, while walking east on Randolf Street and crossing Dearborn Street, he took a great many odd facts of what has been a colorful life and--poof--synthesized them into a plan of action that would form an important part of his legacy.

In short, he decided to set up a scholarship fund--with a difference.

He talks with the students. He asks about family. He insists on good grades, at least a B average--and deportment.

For those he assists with money and advice, Wentcher, 91, is very much like a wise old uncle.

Thus far, Wentcher has donated something over $1 million to the Ernest C. Wentcher Educational Foundation.

Perhaps even more important, in a time when getting money for college often means dealing with faceless bureaucrats and endless forms, he also offers a personal touch for talented students who, for money reasons alone, seem barred from advancing up the academic ladder.

The foundation got going four years ago. Next spring, the first group of students will be graduating from college.

"We have students at Yale, MIT, Loyola, Cornell, University of Chicago, University of Illinois and many others," reported the foundation's secretary-treasurer, Norma Berfield, toting up the beneficiaries of a program that has put 40 Chicago Public Schools students into institutions of higher learning.

Over the Christmas holidays, noted Berfield, "we're thinking of getting them all together, all 40 of them--for a big party."

"He's a very unusual guy," Margaret Lee, president of Oakton Community College, said Wednesday. The work of Wentcher, a strong believer in the value of education at all levels, is evident there too. Over the last two years, his foundation has helped an additional 20 students enter the school on two-year scholarships.

'Wonderful words of advice'

"He doesn't just write a check," said Lee. "He brings students in to meet him. He finds out about them. He has wonderful words of advice. And he gives them the very good experience of going through a high-stakes interview."

Staffers in the Chicago Public Schools Department of Post-Secondary Education choose high school candidates for the Wentcher scholarships. They suggest 15 names. In the spring, each candidate meets with the foundation's board, a half dozen high-level executives who have known Wentcher for years.

The decisions are based on a combination of financial need, good grades and the probability of success in a college environment.

Ten are chosen to get $7,500 a year in financial aid. They are urged to keep in touch.

He has lots of letters--from grateful students--that attest to the adroitness of his approach.

"I am writing to thank you yet again for your incredible generosity over the years," Rana Higgins recently wrote from Duke University. A senior, she is struggling with a physics class, she reported, but is maintaining a 3.72 grade-point average.

Higgins, who grew up in West Rogers Park, placed in the top 10 of her graduating class at Whitney Young High School, she said Wednesday in a phone interview. But in 2002 she was "flipping out" at the thought of attending college without some financial aid, she said.

No help seemed forthcoming until a school counselor at Whitney Young suggested that she fill out an application for a Wentcher scholarship.

'He put me at ease'

"He was very calm, very sweet. He put me at ease," she said, speaking of her meeting with Wentcher before she appeared before the foundation's board. After she was carefully questioned about her goals in life, her financial request was approved.

This week, Higgins added, she is celebrating another milestone. She has just been accepted into the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

To Wentcher, dealing with young people in need is a matter of using people skills he honed during a lifetime in the insurance business.

"I used to hire young people, as well as middle-aged people and old people," he said, speaking of his years as a manager for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America. But he also learned, early on, what it means to be an outsider, struggling to succeed in a world where things do not come easily.

"I was born in Siberia," he noted.

That was in the days, before the Russian Revolution, when his father was a branch manager selling farm equipment for a Chicago-based company then known as International Harvester. Wentcher was raised in Belgium, then went to a private high school near London.

'Sharing his success'

"When I was 21, my father brought me to Chicago, gave me a little money to live on and told me to get a job," he said. "I had an English accent--and I didn't understand American ways." It wasn't easy, he said, but he did well in the insurance business--and in real estate.

In the 1970s, he retired, a wealthy man. His wife, Bea, died in 1996. Then, crossing eight years ago, he began to ponder the future.

"I was waiting for the light to change and thinking of nothing. Then it struck me, as I started to walk across the street, that I wanted to do something for young people," he said. "The schools could provide the candidates. We would interview them and make the selection."

"When I die, I'm leaving enough money to continue it," he said. "There's nothing wrong with the young people of this country, at least not with the ones I see. Most of them have summer jobs and some kind of winter jobs as well. I'm impressed with them, I really am."

"I just give them a helping hand," Wentcher said.