Jean Marie Porwoll rose to heights in her medical career, but she never forgot where it all started.
When Porwoll, a 1969 graduate of Brainerd State Junior College, died of cancer in 2010, she left a legacy for female students of her first alma mater: $1.145 million.
The Central Lakes College (CLC) Foundation Wednesday announced receipt of the bequest from Porwoll’s estate — the largest single gift in 75 years of higher education in the region. A medical doctor and for 25 years the director of emergency services for a Massachusetts hospital, Porwoll was a northeast Brainerd native of modest means and high intelligence.
“This generous gift will mean more than $35,000 in annual scholarships for the education of women,” said Pam Thomsen, CLC director of resource development and the foundation. “This is huge for this college, this foundation and this community.”
CLC reported the gift comes from a woman described as “strong-willed” by her younger brother, Joseph, and “a free spirit” by one of her biology instructors, Steve Long.
A scholarship recipient during the Brainerd college years, Porwoll maintained near-perfect grades while gravitating toward the sciences. After graduation, she transferred to Moorhead State University and in 1976 obtained her medical degree from the University of Minnesota. She picked the medical profession at a time of few women doctors.
“She was aware of inequities, especially those between men and women,” said her brother, who also started college in Brainerd and Moorhead and today is a bio-chemistry executive with a doctorate. “She was a liberal supporter of opportunities and I think she viewed (CLC) as delivering education at the most important stage for women.
“This is where women initially gain the opportunity, and her gift makes perfect sense in support of that.”
Brian Kirkpatrick, foundation board president, knew Porwoll’s brother in high school. In his remarks to the group gathered at CLC Wednesday, Kirkpatrick said Jean Porwoll was a life-long learner, highly intelligent and competitive.
“While she valued education beyond Brainerd, Jean believed the best choice for her bequest was where it all began,” Kirkpatrick said. “... This is pretty special.”
Larry Lundblad, CLC president, said the bequest is a wonderful example of what community colleges are all about, providing a start for someone who continues their education and then remembers where it all started.
“Countless students are going to benefit,” Lundblad said of the scholarships the donation will provide. “We are really humbled by it.”
Amid turbulent cultural forces — Vietnam War, assassinations and generational rift — the Porwolls entered a world full of challenges for a generation of World War II baby boomers. Porwoll experienced not only classroom education. She grew from personal learning. She became a woman of capability and confidence as she came to grips with a social revolution. Among her activities on campus and in the community were causes espoused by the Students for Democratic Society, new-age environmentalists and others with mutual curiosity.
“I dated her best friend,” recalled Robert Plut. “She was very brilliant and really nice.”
Later an ardent supporter of the arts, one of Porwoll’s early creative encounters was as co-painter of the Plut home in Crosby.
“Chartreuse with orange trim,” Plut said, “to make it easy for our parents to give directions to it.”
He said Porwoll enjoyed the activity.
“It is amazing how one person can affect another’s life,” he said.
Porwoll enjoyed biology, said retired instructor Long. “For a year she was my lab assistant. She was one of the brightest students I ever had.”
And she was a “character.” Long said he once arrived early to prepare for the first class and found her asleep on a lab table.
While distant careers separated brother and sister, Joe Porwoll knew his sister loved to cook, garden, kayak and take pictures.
“She had photographs of her kayaking in Newfoundland with porpoises and whales,” he said. “I told her I much preferred my chances in Wyoming and roaming bears over in a big body of water with that little vessel surrounded by much larger creatures.”
She was an art lover and collected both stamps and coins. The estate left to CLC included about $150,000 in coins, some rare enough to be valued at more than $15,000 each.
Thompson said when they first learned of the coin collection donation, she was thinking of something that fit into a coffee can.
“We had to get Brinks to transport it,” she said of the armored car company. That was their first indication of how sizable the donation was going to be and then the college was named as a beneficiary. That’s when, Thompson said, they really grasped the legacy Porwoll was leaving to the school. The last two years were spend liquidating estate assets.
Porwoll interned at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., where she received certification in infectious disease. She became board-certified in internal medicine and emergency medicine.
For 25 years, she was at Wing Memorial Hospital in Massachusetts as director of emergency services. Prior to her death in August of 2010, she was a physician for Hampden County Physicians Associates in Longmeadow, Mass.
In her home community of Monson, Mass., she was a member of the Monson Conservation Commission and Monson Arts Council. Porwoll left two city blocks to the city on condition it be designated green space.
This fall at CLC, 22 female students are sharing the first scholarship funds from this donation. About $11,000 will be available for spring scholarships before the invested money generates a full annual endowment of scholarships estimated to be more than $35,000.
Previously, the largest single endowment at CLC came from the estate of Ione Johnson. That was about $550,000. Last year, the CLC Foundation awarded scholarships to 398 students totaling more than $282,000.