Win Wallin, the late businessman, would be especially proud of Jiake Chen.

Wallin, who died in 2010 at the age of 84, and Chen, 24, a Chinese immigrant who struggled financially to attend college, both are graduates of Minneapolis South High School and the University of Minnesota.

Wallin used the G.I. Bill after World War II to finance his education. Chen worked several jobs and needed financial aid, including a scholarship from Wallin Education Partners.

Chen, now a consultant at Deloitte, recently wrote a check to the scholarship fund that Win and Maxine Wallin started in 1991. The Wallins commenced a modest effort to benefit a couple of dozen needy South High graduates every year. Wallin Education Partners has grown to $3 million-plus annually and helps pay college tuition for about 550 Twin Cities high school graduates.

Tom Holman, 52, a retired Dell Computer executive, several years ago joined the Wallins and a growing list of individual and business donors in an effort that has totaled nearly $40 million over 22 years. Holman is now board chairman of Wallin Education Partners, a foundation. Through it, his family sponsors the “Holman Scholars” with annual contributions, and matched the check of Chen and several other young graduates who are giving back to the foundation.

“I believe in the [Wallin Education Partners] mission and that you have to invest in the next generation,” said Chen. “If it wasn’t for people like Win Wallin and Tom Holman, college would be much more difficult for people like me. This is a small thing I can do. And this is the right thing to do.”

Milliecia Lacy, 18, is a South High graduate heading to Macalester College in September on a Wallin scholarship. Like other recipients, she was a good high school student of modest means. The average scholar is from a household that earns less than $50,000. Most are first-generation college students.

“College was always my intention and I need college to be successful,” Lacy said.

Sharing a fortune

Win Wallin, a plain-talking business giant, often joked that he was a less-than-stellar student at South and the U. But he appreciated his education and had a knack for business. Wallin was a Pillsbury executive before accepting the top job at then-ailing Medtronic in 1985. He positioned it for many years of growth and prosperity. By the late 1980s, Win and Maxine Wallin had established a foundation and decided to step up their charitable giving.

“The disparity of wealth in this country is astonishing,” Win Wallin once said. “I think a person needs to share his good fortune with others.”

Win and Maxine Wallin, who survives him, decided to give away the majority of their wealth over time, said Lance Wallin, a son.

Win Wallin led a splendid retirement marked by several high-profile volunteer posts and gifts to health, charitable and academic causes that are continued by his widow and children.

And nothing delighted him more than seeing working-class kids make it through college. Win Wallin met most every Wallin scholar. He chaired Wallin Education Partners until nearly the end of his life. He invested because research shows that college graduates advance economically.

And there is much left to do.

“We get about 400 to 500 [first-year] applicants a year,” said Holman, but can fund 150 freshmen. “All have financial need. About two-thirds are first-generation college applicants and about two-thirds are students of color.”

The recent Wallin Partners graduation rate tops 80 percent, higher than the Minnesota average. They tend to be successful high school students. They are aided in college by several support counselors employed by Wallin Partners, who follow their academic progress, communicate regularly and otherwise help them navigate what can be foreign territory, particularly for first-year students.

“We ‘trust but verify,’ ” said Aloida Zaragoza, who directs scholar support services for Wallin Partners. “These are all young adults who have the capacity and potential to achieve college … but it’s a difficult environment for many of them. We are there to help.”

The Wallin family has committed indefinitely to fund about 200 freshman-through-senior scholarships a year for about $1.1 million. Other sponsors cover about 350 scholarships.

The $5,500 annual commitments are designed to help fill the gap between financial aid provided by the colleges and government, Holman said. Most students still have to work or borrow at least some money.

Holman, one of Dell’s original electrical engineers, retired early and considers himself fortunate. He’s been a math tutor in St. Paul public schools and his family foundation is the second-largest supporter of scholarships among Wallin Education Partners donors.

“When we have a larger, more educated workforce, the economy and more people will be successful,” Holman said. “Win never liked to ask people for money. We’ve started to do that. This organization can double in size in five years and more people like me can run their own scholarships through Wallin Education Partners.”

Successful college graduates like Jiake Chen will help make that happen.