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Commentary: University of West Florida president and the gift that took her breath away

In 2017, the University of West Florida received a gift of $3.1 million to create the American Dream Scholarship Endowment. This endowment provides need-based scholarships to UWF students with preference given to immigrants and refugees. Since its inception, we have awarded more than $557,000 of American Dream scholarships. The endowment will continue to provide funding in perpetuity.

Until now, the donor has remained anonymous. Here is the rest of the story.

"Steve" Stefanski

Shortly after becoming president, I attended a meeting with a prospective donor who wanted to discuss a gift in memory of her late husband, Leonard “Steve” Stefanski (who some may remember as a professor of business management here at UWF). His sweet wife, TJ, talked to me about her husband and their life together. Their story took my breath away.

Steve Stefanski was born in Poland in 1926. At the age of 13, he was shot while resisting German occupation of his country and sent to a slave labor camp in Germany. He never saw his family again.

During his imprisonment, Steve became proficient in five languages. He escaped the camp at the end of the war and was rescued by American troops. He earned their respect and friendship by serving as an interpreter in Polish, French, German, English and Russian.

About a year later, the Catholic Aid Society arranged for Steve to come to America as a displaced refugee. Before he left, the U.S. soldiers in his company collected $400 as a going away present for their young friend. He crossed the Atlantic on the SS Ernie Pyle and landed in New York City.

Steve’s first job was hauling coal in Pennsylvania for the family of one of his army associates. As soon as he could save $400, he went to Catholic Charities and donated the money as a way of paying forward the gift he had received from the American troops.

Steve joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1946, even before becoming a U.S. citizen. There he met an attractive WAF (Women in the Air Force) who would become his wife for 63 years. Steve retired at the rank of Senior Master Sergeant after 20 years. 

Upon his retirement from the Air Force, Steve’s highest level of education was a GED. He wanted to be an educator, so he started going to school, first at Pensacola Junior College, then the University of West Florida, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1971. He went on to finish with a Master of Business Administration in June 1973. 

Steve taught business management classes at UWF until his retirement in 1988. During that time, he received the Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest honor given by students, and the Outstanding Teacher Award from the Eglin Student Council. 

After they retired, Steve asked TJ if he could invest her pension because they did not need it to live on. It was always their intention to use the proceeds of those investments to help students at the University of West Florida. Their investment resulted in the $3.1 million gift for UWF’s American Dream Scholarship.

Steve died in July of 2016 and TJ passed away earlier this year. It was her request that the gift be listed as anonymous until this time. Steve’s life, their life together and their incredible generosity touched my heart.

Steve and TJ Stefanski believed in the value of education. They believed in our country, and they believed in providing hope for its future.

Their gift, our American Dream Scholarship Endowment, perfectly reflects the hearts of two wonderful individuals – and the heart of the University of West Florida.

Learn more about the scholarship.

Martha D. Saunders is president of the University of West Florida.