The 18 years that Gerald “Jerry” Fischer served as the president and CEO of the University of Minnesota Foundation were the best years of his life. They were good for the university, too.
Fischer brought a wealth of experience in finance and relationship building from the private sector to the fundraising arm of the university in 1990. Under his leadership annual contributions grew almost sixfold from $50 million annually to a record $289 million the year he retired in 2008. He helped launch Campaign Minnesota, the U’s first billion-dollar campaign, which ran from 1996 to 2003 and brought in more than $1.7 billion. The university was able to provide student scholarships and build McNamara Alumni Center, TCF Bank Stadium and Carlson School of Management’s Hanson Hall with the money he helped raise.
“Jerry was not only good at raising money, but also good at taking care of it and stewarding the gifts of very generous donors,” said Bob Bruininks, the U’s president from 2002 to 2011. “He believed that if you gave one dollar to the university, you were owed accountability, a good return on your investment, but also the opportunity to learn how your work had made a difference in the lives of people who were touched by the university. He had a great passion and commitment to his work. He was an exceptional leader.”
Fischer, of Wayzata, died April 7 of lung cancer at the Marie Steiner Kelting Hospice in Chaska. He was 71.
Fischer grew up in Plymouth, Mich., and graduated in 1965 from the College of Wooster in Ohio. He was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Yale School of Divinity. After a year at Yale, he decided that the ministry “was not the best fit and that he fit better in the lay role,” said his wife of 50 years, Catherine.
Fischer earned an MBA from the University of Michigan and worked in the finance department of the Ford Motor Co., including a couple of years as the assistant treasurer of Ford’s European division.
Fischer arrived in Minneapolis in 1985 when he took a job as the chief financial officer with First Bank System, now U.S. Bank. He left the bank four years later amid downsizing. A former bank colleague encouraged him to apply to become CEO of the University of Minnesota Foundation. Though he didn’t have a fundraising background, he got the job.
“He understood finance. He was a wonderful relationship builder, and he had integrity,” his wife said. “He was a nontraditional candidate, but this career move was destined to be. They were the best 20 years of his life.”
He was honored with the 2014 Outstanding Professional Fundraiser Award from the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
A lifelong champion of music and the fine arts — he was a big fan of the King’s Singers — Fischer was an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church. He chaired a campaign for the organ that was installed in the downtown church’s chapel in 2007.
“We make better music at Westminster thanks to Jerry,” said the Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, the church’s senior pastor. “It could not have been a better combination of Jerry’s talents and passions and the calling of his life. He was an extraordinarily generous human being. His understanding of philanthropy was rooted in the joy of generosity, and he helped us communicate that in our work at the church.”
Besides his wife, Fischer is survived by a son, David, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; a daughter, Erika Fischer Floreska, of Baldwin, N.Y.; two brothers, Kenneth, of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Norman, of Houston; a sister, Martha Fischer, of Madison, Wis., and four grandchildren.
A service will be held at 10:30 a.m. June 20 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Av. S., Minneapolis.