Tom Falk caddied his way into higher education. Karen Falk donned a white coat and worked behind the counter at Rennebohm’s to help her pursue her degree. In the 1970s, when they attended UW-Madison, that was enough. Today, financing a UW education is much harder, and the couple is donating $10 million to ensure that future generations of students can get a UW-Madison education — and that the UW will have the faculty who make that education one of the best in the world.
The Falks’ donation is a combination of an immediate, outright gift and a bequest, and it includes funding for two areas where UW-Madison most urgently seeks support: need-based scholarships and endowed faculty positions.
“I believe that the best people are in every corner in society, and we want to make sure the best people in society have a chance to rise up,” says Tom. “So we have devoted some scholarship money to make sure the best and brightest students have a chance to get an education.”
A 32-year veteran at Kimberly-Clark, where he’s been CEO for more than a decade, Tom grew up in the Milwaukee area as the oldest of nine children. As a pre-teen, he became a caddy at Chenequa Country Club in Hartland, Wisconsin. “It was the only job you could get as a 12-year-old,” he says.
The position was fortuitous, as it made him eligible for an Evans Scholarship — a full-tuition award available only to caddies. He was named that club’s first Evans Scholar, and the award opened the university’s doors to him. He then earned a degree in accounting at the UW’s business school in 1980.
Karen, a native of Hartland, Wisconsin, lived at Zoe Bayliss Women’s Cooperative, a low-cost housing option, to make ends meet. In 1980, she graduated from the School of Education and has taught and volunteered in public schools.
Their experiences inspired them to look for ways to help others afford college, and so they created the Karen A. Falk Diversity Scholarship Fund in Education, which will support students from underrepresented groups enrolled at the UW’s School of Education, and the Thomas J. Falk Diversity Scholarship, which will be offered through the Wisconsin School of Business.
“It’s really important for children to have role models who look like them or have similar backgrounds to them,” says Karen. “We want to help take those fabulous students and make sure they can actually afford to complete an education.”
The Falks will also endow two faculty chairs, the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education and the Thomas J. Falk Distinguished Chair in Business. Both positions are intended to support the areas of study that the schools’ leaders feel are most important.
“We know education and business are going to change over a long period of time,” Tom says, “and we hope these gifts will give flexibility to the university and the deans of the schools and colleges we were involved in to apply them where the emphasis needs to be.”
The Falks have a long history of support for UW-Madison. Each has served on the board of visitors for the schools from which they graduated, and on July 1, Tom began a term as chair of the UW Foundation’s Board of Directors.
“We are fortunate to have the support of Karen and Tom Falk,” says the university’s chancellor, Rebecca Blank. “They have shown incredible dedication to UW-Madison, and this gift will benefit many future Badgers in years to come.”
The Falk gift bolsters the priorities of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including supporting students through scholarships and investing in faculty excellence.