They met at a UW fraternity mixer (more on that later), earned three degrees from the university, and are incredibly grateful for the affordable education that launched their careers with no debt, so there was little question whether Richard and Jennifer Arndt (both class of ’69) would make a significant gift to the University of Wisconsin. But frankly, they had little idea how to go about it.
“We wanted to set up two scholarships, one in electrical engineering [Richard’s field] and one in vocal music [Jennifer’s field], but we didn’t know how we were going to fund them,” Jennifer said. “We have to give [Senior Director of Development] Michelle Green credit; we talked to her and realized we could use Richard’s life insurance policy. I had no idea you could make a gift of life insurance.”
That gift, however, won’t fund the scholarships until after Richard is gone.
“I felt badly that Richard would never get to see anybody get the scholarships,” Jennifer said. “Then Michelle told us something else that we didn’t know: We could fund scholarships now from the required minimum distribution that we have to take from Richard’s retirement plan. The funds go directly to the university, and we don’t pay tax on it. So we are going to start funding the scholarships this coming year and keep funding them that way until the life insurance gift takes over—in the far, far distant future.”
They are also using their required minimum distribution to pay the ongoing premiums on the life insurance policy.
“I knew I could give the life insurance policy somehow, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” Richard explained. “Michelle Green does a lot of traveling for the university, and she called and asked if she could come see us [in Austin, Texas, where the Arndts live].
“We’ve given to the alumni association, athletics, the library, the cancer center,” said Richard, who then grinned and added, “She knew we were easy touches—true when you’ve got degrees from the school and also met the love of your life there.”
That meeting occurred at the first mixer Jennifer ever attended.
“It was called a beer supper, and the engineering guys invited the music major girls and the pharmacy girls,” Jennifer recalled. “I had never been to anything like it. We were in a dark, dimly lit basement with a bar that had a giant slide ruler behind it. Richard was standing in front of the bar wearing a three-piece suit and a tie. I thought, ‘That’s the cutest guy in the room, and if I’m going to attend something like this then I am going to shoot for the best.’ ”
When asked for his version of their first meeting, Richard laughed and replied, “After 48 years of marriage, I know better than to contradict.”
Richard went on to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from UW and work for IBM for 47 years, with stints in New York and Minnesota before landing in Austin in 1979. He filed more than a hundred patents as a “platform architect,” helping IBM engineers design computers that would run the software being independently written by programmers around the world. “I went to a one-room schoolhouse—with 13 of us in the first eight grades—and my high school graduating class was 62,” Richard says of his upbringing outside of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. “It’s difficult to put into words what the University of Wisconsin made available to me, going from that situation to where I was at the center of the computer industry.”
Jennifer, meanwhile, also grew up in a small Wisconsin town; and after earning her UW bachelor’s degree in vocal music education, she went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico and a second master’s and a doctorate at the University of Texas. She taught in elementary schools and in colleges and gave private lessons—and raised three children, one of whom graduated from UW in 2012. When her fifth grade choir was asked to perform for the 2012 Miss America (Laura Kaeppeler from Kenosha), she arranged a patriotic medley which ended with “The Eyes of Texas” transitioning to “On, Wisconsin.”
A local Austin TV station covered the performance and commented, “Boy, that music teacher really did her research!” not realizing that for that particular Austin, Texas, musician knowing “On, Wisconsin” was no challenge whatsoever.
“I loved my college experience,” Jennifer said. “I was a shy and small girl and very nervous about performing. But I had such wonderful teachers who helped me.”
She particularly mentioned vocal music professor Ilona Kombrink and piano teacher Ellsworth Snyder. “Here I am almost 70 years old,” she said, “and I remember their names and what fabulous teachers they were.”
Richard and Jennifer emphasized how grateful they are for the low cost of their education, and they want their scholarships to help students reduce their education debt.
“In the days when Jennifer and I were going to school, the state of Wisconsin paid for 50 percent of our education; and we were fortunate that our parents could provide the rest so that when we got out, we didn’t have any debt,” Richard said. “Now the states have made some very short-sighted judgments and are not investing nearly as much in the university systems—and as a result a lot of students have to acquire massive debt. Our careers took us out of Wisconsin and we couldn’t really pay back. But we can pay forward, and that’s what we are doing with these scholarships.”