Bernie Queneau drives from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis every year to present his family scholarships to University of Minnesota students. He hits the highway a little slower these days. At 100 years old, he may well be Minnesota's oldest living scholarship donor.

He also is among the few donors who still meets all the winners of his scholarships -- even if it requires driving 900 miles and sharing driving duties with his wife, Esther.

For the nursing and public health students who benefit, the healthy centenarian offers a walking advertisement for their profession and the payoff of "good nutrition, exercise, no smoking, friends, dark chocolate -- and blondes."

The 2012 scholarship winners were all gratitude -- and all ears.

"It's awesome to have the opportunity to say thanks to someone who gives you a scholarship [in person]," said Tawny Dahmes, one of this year's winners attending the annual lunch gathering for Queneau on Tuesday.

"A lot of times you get scholarships, and you just write a thank you note and that's it. It's awesome to meet him. I love hearing the stories."

A unique endowment

The stories explain a family connection to the U's School of Public Health dating to Queneau's sister Marguerite, a 1925 U grad -- one of three siblings to have degrees from the university -- and an internationally known public health nurse. After her death in 1994, Queneau and his brother Roland wanted to create a memorial to honor their sister, so, in 1995, the Marguerite Queneau Memorial Scholarship Endowment was established. In addition, Roland Queneau, who died in 1997, also bequeathed funds for a nursing scholarship in honor of his late wife, Alva.

The two endowments are valued at $1.5 million, funded heavily by Roland Queneau. To date, they have given nearly 150 students a break from the cost of tuition.

On Tuesday, about 35 people, current and past scholarship winners as well as faculty, gathered to meet the unusual man who shows up every year with a quick wit and intact memory of events they only read in their history books.

"I remember the bombing in England -- by the Zeppelins in World War I!" he laughed.

While the mood at the Campus Club was jovial, the appreciation was sincere. One by one, the students stood at their tables and introduced themselves.

"My name is Sarah Frank," said one. "I'm very grateful for all your family has done. I'm hoping to do work in neonatal intensive care."

"My name is Lynn Choromanski," said another. "I was a single mom with three children when I received your scholarship. You allowed me to finish my doctorate."

About 3,500 family endowments have been set up at the U, staff said. But this one is unique. "While we have many generous donors, Bernie obviously stands out," said John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health.

"He is genuinely interested in the students. That kind of philanthropy is unusual. It's not just about putting money on a table. He wants to know what that money is doing."

Connections go way back

It is not surprising that Queneau is an off-the-grid philanthropist. He's led an off-the-grid life.

His mother, a member of the well-known Blaisdell family of Minneapolis, met his dad while they were students at the U. His dad was an internationally known engineer, "so I grew up everywhere," he said.

Queneau shared his life story at the lunch Tuesday with the help of a photo slideshow. It started with a young baby pictured in his father's arms, surrounded by five siblings and their mother.

"I was born in Belgium -- and my mother was there at the time," he quipped.

But he fled Belgium with his mother and siblings during World War I, settling in England while his father joined the French Cavalry. His family later move to France, then Minnesota, then New York, where he graduated from high school at age 15.

The precocious teen went on to earn an engineering degree at Columbia University and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota at the age of 24. In 1941, he married Henrietta Nye -- whose grandfather was former Minneapolis Mayor Wallace Nye -- and had three daughters.

He was an assistant professor at Columbia University, "and then Hitler came along," he said. He joined the U.S. Navy.

Queneau later taught at Columbia University, went on to work for U.S. Steel for 20 years, became a consultant and outlived two wives.

Even in "retirement," he continues to volunteer at the Mount Lebanon Public Library, near his home outside Pittsburgh. He also plays bridge, and travels with Esther to such exotic destinations as Tahiti and Cape Horn.

But his annual trek to Minnesota is special. After the lunch Tuesday, students and staff walked up to the small man in the blue suit and gave him a hug.

"You are such an inspiration," said Sara Tomczyk, a former scholarship recipient, who now does public health work in Ethiopia. "You're incredible."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511