Eight years ago, Gateway Technical College President Bryan Albrecht gave retired sheet metal worker Otto Tarnowski and his wife Beverly a tour of the college’s welding department.
The elderly couple from Caledonia had stopped by Gateway’s Racine campus for a look around. A member of the staff stopped to talk to them in the parking lot, then contacted Albrecht, who offered them a tour.
“I had no idea what their interest was, just that they were citizens from the community who were interested,” Albrecht remembered Tuesday. “When we finished that first visit, Otto asked me if there was anything that we could use. I thought he might have some (used) welding equipment that he wanted to donate.”
Instead, Albrecht said, Tarnowski called a week later offering to buy new welding equipment for the department.
That first meeting led to a close relationship between Gateway and the frugal Racine County couple with a passion for helping others, a relationship that culminated Tuesday with the announcement of a $1.2 million bequest from their estate — the largest gift in the school’s history.
The donation follows an $804,000 donation in 2013 that established Tarnowski Hall at Gateway’s SC Johnson iMET Center in Sturtevant.
To fund three efforts
Gateway will use the $1.2 million gift to fund the college foundation’s student emergency fund, manufacturing program support and the Gateway Promise tuition-free college program.
“They were really sincere and dear friends, and they wanted to help fulfill the mission of Gateway and make sure that youth had the opportunity to use education as a pathway to prosperity,” Albrecht said. “They were both very humble in their giving, very kind and very optimistic about the future, especially for people who could have skills and work with their hands.”
Albrecht said the couple was also dedicated to supporting youth programs in Mexico through their church.
Otto Tarnowski died in December 2012 at the age of 86.
A World War II veteran, he was a sheet metal craftsman at a Racine manufacturer until his retirement.
Beverly Tarnowski worked for a telephone company when she was younger, then managed the couple’s hobby farm in Caledonia.
The couple, who had no children, were frugal and invested their money wisely, said Jennifer Charpentier, executive director of the Gateway Foundation.
Helping other people
Albrecht said it was important to Otto to use the money they accumulated to help other people.
At first, they made donations to Gateway’s welding, horticulture and sustainability programs.
Albrecht said he spoke to the couple often, and that they loved hearing stories about students at Gateway.
Albrecht said in 2012 Otto and Beverly spoke to him about making a substantial gift, which led to the establishment of Tarnowski Hall. In 2013, Beverly was at Gateway for the dedication of the expanded training center named in their honor.
At the same time, the college announced that she had pledged their estate to Gateway.
“It’s part of our bringing up, that we wanted to do something for the people that are less fortunate,” Beverly Tarnowski told Wisconsin Public Radio’s WGTD at the time.
Beverly Tarnowski died in September 2017.
Albrecht said the couple are buried together at the Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove.
“Otto’s real passion was to make sure that youth knew that with hard work and skills that you could develop a real family-supporting career,” Albrecht said.
He said their legacy at Gateway “has deep meaning for me, and their gift will have deep meaning for the community.”