Winston Wallin is being remembered through the eyes of some of Minnesota’s mightiest.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for example, stopped to acknowledge the works of the man who died Monday at the age of 84.
“The world lost one of its pioneers today,” the governor said in a statement. “Win Wallin saved lives, created jobs and helped humanity in immeasurable ways. He will be greatly missed.”
Other big players, such as George Pillsbury, also stepped forward to say kind things about this man who rose from the working class of south Minneapolis to become the No. 2 man at Pillsbury — and then, the No. 1 guy at Medtronic, turning a struggling medical technology firm into a $16 billion a year company.
He clearly was a gifted business leader.
But what was most remarkable about Wallin was his combination of humility and generosity.
In 1992, he started a scholarship program at South High, his alma mater, Class of 1943. At the time, Wallin said that he and his spouse, Maxine, had looked at their own personal fortune and asked themselves, “How did we attain all of this?”
The couple decided that it was both their opportunity and obligation to share their wealth.
That program they started at a single high school has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving.
The Wallin program is now opening doors to a college education at 26 high schools benefiting 150 students each year. (Fifty of the 150 scholarships last year came from the Wallin portion of the foundation.) Students receive $4,000 a year, or $16,000 for four years. The Wallin Foundation now has become Wallace Education Partners, combined with 16 other donor families and corporations.
Amidst all the growth, the Wallins managed to keep things personal, meeting with each of the recipients when they first were awarded the scholarships and keeping track as they progressed through college.
“He had an open and kind demeanor,” said Kafia Ahmed, who was the recipient of a Wallin scholarship when she was graduated from Roosevelt High in Minneapolis in 2007. “I tend to do well with adults, but even my friends who are shy, were comfortable with him.”
Ahmed, who will graduate from the University of Minnesota in the spring, currently is applying to grad schools throughout the country with the intention of ultimately becoming a diplomat.
Her parents brought her and her siblings to Minnesota from Somalia when she was 6 years old.
Given her family’s value of education — her two older brothers have graduated from college — Ahmed believes she somehow would have made it through college without the financial help, but the scholarship has led to opportunities she would not otherwise have been able to experience. There have been summer study programs at the University of Maryland and Spellman College in Atlanta. There’s been a semester abroad (in Switzerland). These programs have given her chances to meet and work with United Nations officials.
Those opportunities and her success brought a smile to the face of her benefactor at a meeting of Wallin scholars last spring at the U.
“The last time I saw him, he asked me what I was doing,” she said. “I told him I’d been studying abroad, and he was very pleased.”
There are standards, beyond proven financial need, for students to receive a Wallin: A high school student must have shown academic achievement and community involvement and also receive faculty recommendations.
Ahmed and 11 other Roosevelt students received their scholarshipd in 2007. All are on a path to graduation, she said.
“I can’t begin to tell you how appreciative I am,” she said. “I’m not just speaking for myself but for my friends.”
She believes she and those other scholars can say meaningful thank-yous to their benefactors by having positive impacts on their respective communities — even the world.
Surely there will be impacts. The program the Wallins started — and contributed more than $25 million to — has awarded more than 2,500 scholarships.
But Wallin always was modest about what he and his spouse had created.
“I just wanted to spread it [his wealth] around a little,” he said in an interview a few years ago.