He just can't give it away

Scholarships, anyone? A retired teacher is having a difficult time getting Minnesota schools to embrace his offer.

Mark Welter
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Mark Welter, a retired history teacher, wants to create $250 to $500 “World Citizen Awards” for students. Some institutions have embraced the offer; others have not responded.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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All Mark Welter wants to do is give away his money.

For more than a year, the retired history teacher has been contacting school and college offices, offering to create $250 to $500 "World Citizen Awards'' for students. He's having a hard time finding takers.

"Given the economy, you'd think they'd jump at it,'' said a frustrated Welter. "I think of all the students who could use this money and feel sorry for them.''

Welter's quest to create as many as 25 World Citizen Awards and/or scholarships shows the unexpected obstacles facing some citizen philanthropists. Minnesota enjoys a long tradition of philanthropic giving, but people first dipping their toes in the water can get lost in the waves.

Some educators express interest in his offer but never follow up. Others forward his query to staff and it disappears, he said.

"I contacted the St. Paul School District [foundation] over the summer, offering to create scholarships for all nine high schools,'' said Welter, who taught history in the Robbinsdale Area School District for nearly 30 years. "Since then, nothing.''

Mike Anderson, executive director of the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, said he appreciated the offer but that he needed to focus on bigger district initiatives, such as the Tutoring Partnership for Academic Success and finding a new school superintendent. Welter's idea isn't dead, he said, it's just not on the front burner.

"It's nice that he wants to give $250 to students,'' he said, but it has less impact than a tutoring program for hundreds of students.

In contrast, Welter approached Minneapolis Public Schools about the same time he contacted St. Paul. Five weeks later, Welter had signed a contract to create nine scholarships.

"To set it up is not that big of a deal, and it's a wonderful recognition for these kids,'' said Janet George, scholarship and grants coordinator for AchieveMpls.

School report cards

Welter's school report card goes something like this: Accepting his money are Minneapolis Public Schools' eight high schools, St. John's University, the two high schools in the Robbinsdale school district and Le Sueur High School.

Offers to other educational organizations are either still pending or rejected for various reasons, he said. They include Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), Anoka-Hennepin School District, Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Jordan High School and the Belle Plaine School District, said Welter.

At MnSCU, Welter sent an e-mail to the executive director of its foundation, Maria McLemore, proposing a $500 scholarship. McLemore said no, his correspondence shows. "I do not believe the foundation could have a role in your philanthropic process,'' she wrote back. She urged him to work with area high schools.

MnSCU spokesperson Linda Kohl said the scholarship wasn't a natural fit for the foundation because it was for high school students. Welter, however, said he had explained that the scholarship could be for college students as well.

Sometimes Welter's offer simply gets lost in the flood of daily e-mails. Welter said he had contacted the Jordan School District, but never received a response. District Superintendent Mark Ruggeberg said he had no recollection of getting such an offer, but that he does get hundreds of e-mails and phone calls every week.

"I question all these delays,'' said Welter. "All they have to do is accept the award if they want it. Then you send out the information to the schools. You ask teachers to identify students. Get a committee to read through the nominations. ... And they've got a year to do it!''

Man with a mission

Last week, Welter toured Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis, where a student will receive one of his scholarships next spring. He wore a button that read, "But We've Always Done it That Way'' -- with a red line crossing over it.

Sitting in the school library with two staff members, he explained the reason he felt compelled to give back to Minnesota's public schools.

Welter said he grew up in a house without plumbing near Le Sueur. His father died when he was 2. He worked his way through high school and college at the Green Giant company, eventually earning a bachelor's degree at St. John's University, a master's degree at Mankato State, and a Ph.D. in history at the University of Minnesota.

His teacher salary was clearly middle class, said the 76-year-old, but his retirement investments did surprisingly well.

"My overwhelming purpose is to teach our commonalities, not our differences,'' said Welter. "We are all interdependent. We need world citizens because no one nation can solve world problems, whether they be global warming, terrorism or pandemics.''

Students who share this philosophy are eligible to receive the award, he said. Wellstone teacher Terry McDanel told Welter that even a small award would make a difference for students at this school.

"$500 is a key that gets them through the door [to college],'' said McDanel. "It's one class. It's hope.''

Bill King, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, acknowledged it can be difficult for people with little background in philanthropy to start a scholarship.

"Maybe he's not getting to the right people,'' King said. "Maybe the scholarship is too specific. ... Maybe it's not enough money.''

However, those small scholarships can lead to something bigger. Welter was so inspired by the international students he met at Wellstone High School that he's now offered a more significant donation.

"This is why I'm doing this,'' Welter said, looking at the students from around the world bustling through the halls at Wellstone High School. "It's all about making a difference.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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