Million Dollar Lady

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Vera Russell with Kate Steffens, Dean of the College of Education

Above: Vera Russell (left) with Kate Steffens, dean of the College of Education, at a January 2007 College of Education event in Houston, Texas.

Right: Talahi yearbook portrait from 1940, the year Vera Russell earned her bachelor’s degree in education.

The College of Education’s first million-dollar benefactor used a teaching degree to free herself from the social restraints imposed on women.

Before her death this spring, Vera Russell ’35 ’40 generously thanked the college that helped her become a teacher, principal, ham-radio operator and investor.

Russell’s 2005 gift of farm land funded the renovation of the Curriculum & Technology Center in the Education Building. Her 2008 gift of farm land and an individual retirement account will endow a graduate assistantship and curriculum fund for the Curriculum & Technology Center, which will be renamed in her honor. Plans also call for the creation of learning centers within the College of Education to enhance the educational environment for students and faculty.

“We are deeply grateful for Vera Russell’s commitment to the College of Education as well as her passion for education,” said Kate Steffens, dean of the College of Education. “Because of Vera’s generous gifts, her legacy and commitment will live on at St. Cloud State University.”

Russell’s recent gift of property is valued at approximately $1 million. With her previous gifts, her total giving to the College of Education is just over $1.2 million.

“Vera Russell is a marvelous example of a student who came to St. Cloud State and realized her dreams and her professional ambition through education,” said President Earl H. Potter III. “We are grateful that her generous gifts and her inspiring success story will continue to help future students achieve their own personal goals. Gifts like this are key to helping St. Cloud State continue to serve students in increasingly better ways.”

Russell, who died May 18, 2008, is buried in Montevideo, not far from the Chippewa County farm where she came of age between the world wars. Times were hard and opportunities few for a young woman in western Minnesota during the 1920s and 1930s. Russell looked to St. Cloud State for answers.

“St. Cloud State provided a beginning point for Vera, a gateway for a career that she was not sure she could find elsewhere,” said Chad Marolf, director of development for the College of Education.

Armed with a two-year teaching certificate from St. Cloud State Teachers College, Russell found a teaching job that paid her $300 for eight months’ work. The bachelor’s degree she earned at St. Cloud State in 1940 helped her advance to $1,450 for the 1942-43 school year. After World War II, Russell parlayed a master’s degree from the University of Michigan into a career as an elementary school principal in Grand Blanc, Mich. In 1977-78, her last full year as an educator, she earned $27,064.

In her private life Russell was an amateur radio enthusiast, operating with the call sign K8BPQ. Her 1963 service as president of the Genesee County Radio Club in Michigan is remarkable in an avocation dominated then, as today, by males.

Never married, she traveled widely with her sisters. In the latter years of retirement she lived in Houston, Texas, near her sister, Zola Parker. She remained committed to education, serving as a volunteer tutor at Almeda Elementary School. Russell outlived four siblings and inherited their wealth, managing those assets and her own until her death.

In her final trip to the state of her birth, Russell addressed St. Cloud State faculty, staff and students at a November 2007 reception in her honor.

“St. Cloud has always had a special place in my heart. I enjoyed going here,” said Russell. “You don’t know how much I’ve appreciated the education I got here.”

- Jeff Wood

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