By Bill Henk – Recently the College of Education received its largest one-time gift in our 93-year history at Marquette. With my 10-year anniversary as dean only a few short days away, I have to admit that this very welcome news felt especially gratifying to me.
In effect, the gift made for a red-letter day on one hand, because it would benefit our remarkable, highly deserving students. But it was also mixed with sadness over the passing of a dedicated professional.
The extraordinary act of generosity amounted to $1,000,000, and it came from a very unlikely source: a retired MPS school teacher, Bernadette Steep.
The story garnered quite a bit of media attention, spurred partly because of the size of the contribution and how the endowment’s interest will provide ongoing scholarship support for students. But perhaps of even greater intrigue to news sources and readers was the unique story of the benefactor. Although I’ll recount parts of it here, a much fuller account of Bernadette’s life can be found in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Suffice it to say that much of the curiosity surrounding the story centered on someone of modest means being so amazingly philanthropic.
What I really want to focus on in this post, though, is what the gift means — to the College, our students, and the world.
Although I only knew Bernadette a little from visiting with her in a nursing home, her love for Marquette and for teaching came through loud and clear. She was proud of her nearly three decades of teaching at Maple Tree Elementary School, and she spoke ever so lovingly of her alma mater. I’m told that she stayed wrapped for warmth in a Marquette blanket until the very end of her life, a notion that continues to choke me up.
In the aftermath of the gift, I’ve thought about all the young lives Bernadette touched over the course of her teaching career. In that sense, I smile knowing that she fully lived up to our longstanding challenge to those entering the education profession to “Be THE Difference you wish to see in the world.”
And I’ve also thought about the fact that Bernadette struggled to afford her beloved Marquette education. She put herself through college by working countless hours in a drug store and a dime store. In hindsight, I suspect the motivation for her gift took root in the idea that she didn’t want today’s generation of aspiring Marquette teachers to face that same daunting financial burden. Unfortunately, in today’s world, many of our students and their families do face that challenge, so her help couldn’t be more timely.
As it turns out, the incredible beauty and power of her gesture resides in the fact that even though Bernadette has left this world, she will continue to touch lives. On that count, the impact of her generosity figures to be nothing short of transformative. Not only will the endowment change the lives of the aspiring teachers it supports directly, but it will affect the lives of all of the children and adolescents those educators nurture over the entire course of their careers.
When we do the math, the impact that Bernadette Steep has and will exert on the world computes as staggering. Remember this fact the next time you or anyone else makes the mistake of believing that one person cannot make a profound difference.
Thank you, Bernadette — on behalf of our students and their students yet to be. While some people will say it’s too bad you didn’t live to see the full extent of your influence, my guess is that you’ll be able to take it all in from your new, eternal vantage point.