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Northern receives $15 million gift
Tuesday, 20 November 2012 10:58
 

From the Aberdeen News (SD)

Donation, largest in Northern's history, will go to education school

A $15 million donation to Northern State University from the estate of a farmer who quietly built a fortune will be used to strengthen Northern's School of Education for years to come, said Northern State officials.

The announcement that Millicent Atkins, a Columbia-area farmer and businesswoman, included NSU in her will as a major beneficiary was made at the Northern Nights Foundation Banquet at the Dakota Event Center on Saturday night.

"It is the most special announcement that I've been able to make, certainly in the four years that I've been here, but it's the largest announcement I've made in the 30-some years I've had in higher education and K through 12," NSU president Jim Smith said on Saturday night.

When Smith announced the dollar figure, several people in the audience gasped as a round of applause swept through the event center.

Dr. Connie Geier, the dean of NSU's School of Education, said Saturday after the annoucement that she was overwhelmed by the generosity of the gift, which she said will help attract high quality students into the field of education.

"The ultimate beneficiaries are the students of South Dakota, because high quality teachers are imperative to their development," Geier said.

The donation is the largest in the school's history.

"It is breathtaking,"  Smith said Friday in an interview.

In accordance with Atkins' wishes, the money will be used for the improvement of the early childhood and elementary education programs at NSU, including scholarships for education majors, he said.

"Within reason, we will get as much as we can into the hands of our students," Smith said.

To honor Atkins for her gift, Northern plans to name the School of Education after her.

"We have every intention of naming the school after her," Smith said. "Given the impact from now to eternity, it is the right thing to do to honor her legacy."

The proposal to rename the School of Education will likely be brought before the state Board of Regents when they meet in Aberdeen on April 2-4, he said.

Atkins graduated from Northern with a teaching degree in 1940.

"A gift like this symbolizes so much about Northern," Smith said. "She could have donated to any number of philanthropic groups, but she chose to give it to NSU. It is humbling. It makes one realize how important Northern must have meant to her."

"We have every intention of naming the school after her," Smith said. "Given the impact from now to eternity, it is the right thing to do to honor her legacy."

The proposal to rename the School of Education will likely be brought before the state Board of Regents when they meet in Aberdeen on April 2-4, he said.

Atkins graduated from Northern with a teaching degree in 1940.

"A gift like this symbolizes so much about Northern," Smith said. "She could have donated to any number of philanthropic groups, but she chose to give it to NSU. It is humbling. It makes one realize how important Northern must have meant to her."

Atkins, who died July 25 at age 93, never married and had no children. She inherited land from her father, Fred Atkins, and bought more land after his death.

She owned 4,127 acres of cropland around Columbia and in northern Brown County, according to the 2011 Brown County Plat Book. She rented out all the land.

Atkins never physically farmed any land, but managed her properties, said Stan Carlson, 87, a Columbia-area farmer who rented land from her for 65 years.

Smith said the university was informed before her death that NSU was in her will, but that he did not know the size of the gift.

"We knew about the acreage, but didn't know the magnitude of her other investments," Smith said.

NSU will receive money annually from a trust for the next 10 years, said Todd Jordre, NSU Foundation CEO and president. On the 10-year anniversary of her death, all assets from the Atkins portfolio will be divided among the beneficiaries, Jordre said.

The total amount Northern is expected to receive from trust payments and asset sales is $15 million, but it could be higher depending on the markets, Jordre said.

The money will be put in an endowment and NSU will use the interest for scholarships and programs that will strengthen the School of Education, Jordre said.

"This is a game changer in terms of our ability to offer scholarships, bring in speakers or improve the school," he said. "We will be able to pump up the school in any area it needs it."

The largest previous donation to NSU was an anonymous gift of $5 million, he said.

Smith said Atkins' endowment will allow NSU to attract more talent with scholarships and provide some financial relief in a time of cutbacks in educational funding.

"Really, this is special for everyone involved," Jordre said.

— Reporter Scott Feldman contributed to this story.

 

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