University News

WIU Graduates' Planned Gift Establishes Three Scholarships at WIU

May 25, 2016


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MACOMB, IL -- Tom and Alice Berntson met in a Western Illinois University German class in Sallee Hall in 1972. The then-juniors were enrolled in the same class due to a requirement in Tom's major (chemistry) and Alice's desire to learn another language (she had already taken Spanish and French courses). Less than two years later, the couple graduated from Western and soon left for Europe, where they traveled for two months. They returned to go to graduate school, Tom at Iowa State, and Alice at WIU. Within a few years both had earned master's degrees at Iowa State.

And now, they want to help Western students who are taking courses in the same classrooms they sat in more than 40 years ago. The Berntsons are establishing three scholarships to help students who could not otherwise complete their education at Western.

"We remember dorm mates who had to drop out of school because they ran out of money. I had the good fortune to not have to worry at all about finances during college, so it would be great to help others," said Alice.

The Berntsons have named the WIU Foundation as a beneficiary of a planned gift valued at 20 percent of their estate. With that sizeable sum, they will establish the Tom J. Berntson Scholarship for Chemistry Endowment, the Alice Robison Berntson Scholarship for Psychology Endowment and the Tom J. and Alice R. Berntson Scholarship for Foreign Languages Endowment.

Tom began his academic career at WIU as a pre-med major, with the help of a State of Illinois scholarship, but was inspired by several chemistry professors, especially Norbert Goeckner, to change his major to chemistry. After completing his bachelor's degree in chemistry, he went on to get a master's in biochemistry and taught at various Quad Cities-area colleges before moving to Oregon in 1982. There, he taught chemistry, math, biology and oceanography at a local community college before retiring in 2014 after more than 30 years. Now, he wants to provide opportunities for others to be able to pursue their passion in science.

"WIU allowed us to grow academically and socially. As time went on, we realized how important WIU was to our success in life. We have a lot of fond memories of fun with friends and being at Lake Argyle," said Tom. Tom's scholarship will provide at least two scholarships to juniors or seniors majoring in chemistry.

Alice found psychology fascinating after following in her sister's footsteps by taking a psychology class in high school, so she decided to continue studying the field at the college level. She ultimately graduated with a bachelor's in psychology from WIU and later obtained her master's degree in industrial relations at Iowa State University. She started her professional career at the John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline and later pursued jobs in personnel/human resources at a variety of manufacturers when the couple moved to Oregon. She also ran her own consulting HR practice for some years after leaving the corporate world. She retired in 2008. Alice attributes her desire to provide scholarships for future generations to her parents.

"When I was growing up, my parents talked a lot about supporting their alma mater schools…education was supremely important to them. So now, decades later, Tom and I have been fortunate to have had successful careers. Combined with a measure of frugality, and no children, what are we going to do with all this money we've accumulated?", Alice added.

Together, they mapped out a list of 13 non-profits that they wanted to support and WIU was included, high on that list. Why so high on that list?

"We are Leathernecks, need I say more?", she added. And thanks to the Berntsons, this scholarship will be awarded to a minimum of two junior or senior psychology majors.

The Berntson's scholarships will be available for students who have a level of achievement, who have shown that they have done well before being eligible and who are also committed to graduating with a major in the chosen areas. The couple said they wanted to make the three scholarships named, endowed and meaningful enough to make a difference to deserving students.

The third scholarship, in foreign languages, brings this story full circle.

"If it wasn't for foreign languages, we would have never met," said Tom.

It will fund a minimum of two scholarships to juniors or seniors at Western majoring in foreign languages. The Berntsons established this scholarship to benefit other WIU students who share their passion of traveling the world and their interest in foreign languages.

"WIU is very grateful that the Berntsons want to establish not just one but three endowments to help future generations of WIU students. It's wonderful to hear that they met here and that their legacy will continue on for decades to come," stated Brad Bainter, vice president for Advancement and Public Services.

The Berntsons established the three scholarships to help future students complete their education. And decades down the road, they hope the recipients of their scholarships look back and appreciate their scholarships and hopefully do the same by giving back to Western.

Posted By: Amanda Shoemaker, WIU Foundation & Development (AJ-Shoemaker@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations