Tom Falk caddied his way into higher education. Karen Falk worked behind the counter of a Rennebohm Drug Store 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 our 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 gift and a bequest through their estate. 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 you want to make sure that the best people in society have a chance to rise up,” says Tom. “By earmarking some scholarship money to that, you make sure that the best and brightest students have a chance to get an education.”
Rebecca Blank, the university’s chancellor, says that the Falks “have shown incredible dedication to UW-Madison, and this gift will benefit many future Badgers in years to come.”
Caddying leads to a full-tuition scholarship
A 32-year veteran at Kimberly-Clark, where he has 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 because it made him eligible for an Evans Scholarship—a full-tuition award available only to caddies. He earned a degree in accounting at the UW’s business school in 1980.
Karen is a native of Hartland who in order to make ends meet lived at Zoe Bayliss Women’s Cooperative, a low-cost housing option. She graduated from the School of Education in 1980 and has taught and volunteered in elementary schools. The Falks have one son and now live in Dallas.
Tom and Karen endow two scholarships and two faculty chairs
Their experiences inspired them to create the Karen A. Falk Diversity Scholarship Fund in Education to support students from underrepresented groups enrolled at the UW’s School of Education, and the Thomas J. Falk Diversity Scholarship, offered through the Wisconsin School of Business.
“I think it’s really important for children to have role models that look like them or have similar backgrounds to them,” says Karen. “We want to help take those fabulous students and make sure they can afford to complete an education.”
The Falks will also endow two faculty chairs: the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair in Education, which will fund the dean of the School 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.
The Falks are loyal supporters
The Falks have a long history of support for UW-Madison. Both served on the board of visitors of their respective schools, and Tom recently began a term as chair of the UW Foundation’s board of directors. They urged other alumni to support UW.
“As you look at how education has been financed over the years, it was more state support and less private sector and philanthropic support,” Tom explains. “That’s changing, and as we all know tuition has gone up. And so the themes in this campaign are around faculty support and to make sure that kids who need help can get some scholarship assistance so their dreams can come true here.”
A touching song and pink flamingos
The Falks speak passionately about our university, describing the strong emotions generated when alums sing “Varsity”—and asserting that the university is like no other.
“Part of it is the location,” Karen says. “Right on the lake, the state capital—it’s a beautiful campus. There’s just this feeling—they even have pink flamingos again!”
“We were on campus when the original pink flamingos were put on the top of Bascom Hill,” Tom recalls. “It was hilarious. One of them wound up in my Evans Scholar room, and the student senate president was running after us yelling, ‘Chicken thieves, chicken thieves!’ ”
“It is the place where you came to grow up,” Karen says. “You graduate from high school and move to campus and you’re responsible for yourself. The growing up part—it creates memories.”
“Our deepest connections are here,” Tom says. “I came back on the foundation board a dozen years ago, and I probably hadn’t been on campus in ten or fifteen years. There’s just something about it that’s electric: always something going on, a buzz about the place that I just haven’t found anyplace else.”
It feels good to give back to the university that did so much for you
The Falk gift forms part of the comprehensive campaign of the UW Foundation, which raises, invests and distributes funds for the benefit of the university.
“You hear people all the time who say, ‘Give until it hurts.’ But I would say, ‘Give until it feels good,’ ” Tom says. “Whatever level you can support, it will make a difference, and it will make you feel better by giving back to the university that did so much for you.”