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Class of ’81 Rises to the Challenge

November 16, 2017 | By Anne Kniggendorf (SF97)

Sarah Hartzell, Kate O'Malley, Matt Hartzell, Beebs Hartzell, Anne (O'Malley) Culotta and Warren Spector pose for a photo at a recent wedding.

Two years ago, when the Annapolis class of 1981 was coordinating its 35-year reunion, Matt Hartzell joined his fellow Homecoming committee members on a trip to meet Leo Pickens. Pickens (A78) is the college’s director of leadership annual gifts.

They asked about different ways that alumni can give back to the college, and Pickens shared a number of ideas. The one that sparked Hartzell’s interest most is called a multi-year pledge. Hartzell told Pickens he was in.

Now a lawyer in Houston, Hartzell pledged to give $10,000 over five years to the college.

Outside of his own hurricane-ravaged city, Hartzell says “There’s no better place for me to donate money. … St. John’s is such a unique institution.”

Hartzell believes that consumerism in American education has eroded many colleges and universities into little more than trade schools; and now that STEM education is trending, Hartzell feels higher education should also dedicate itself to what, in his view, a true education should provide.

“I don’t think it’s a good thing for this country in the long term because look: if you educate someone to the Nth degree in science, technology, engineering, who do you have to make the decisions about how best to use them without the well-rounded education, without the grounding in who we are as a people?” he asks.

He adds that while it’s a good thing for people to find jobs that align with their degrees, it’s a fallacy that a STEM degree will more firmly ensure a career than a St. John’s degree. “I’d say the contrary is true: without the well-grounded education you’re limited.”

In short, he thinks this is an especially crucial time to preserve St. John’s Program and approach.

After the reunion, Hartzell announced his decision to make a multi-year pledge on the class’s Facebook page in the hope that others would follow suit. They did. In the 2017 fiscal year, the Annapolis class of 1981 had a stellar 44 percent participation rate—the kind of alumni giving rate that financially robust colleges reach annually and that St. John’s College is now striving toward as the college approaches its upcoming capital campaign.

Hartzell explains that while his pledge is small compared to some gifts—Warren Spector is his classmate and made his $25 million gift public around the same time—gift amount isn’t the only important aspect of giving.

“What matters more is giving what you can,” he says. “It matters when people see the percentage of alumni who give because that’s an indication of how widespread support for the college continues to be.”

He’ll continue to do what he can to support the school that has often been seen as an outlier among institutes of higher learning: a “radically traditional” liberal arts education, he remembers hearing it called. He says the program “demands preservation.”

Two of Hartzell’s daughters are Johnnies: the older has earned a master’s degree and is teaching high school English, just what she always wanted to do, and the younger is a sophomore in Annapolis. They’ve enjoyed intramural sports, sailing, the music program, and waltz parties.

“It’s a real community of learning with all the outlets that humans require.”

Sustaining the life of the school requires a lot of giving, Hartzell says, and while that’s not easy, “It’s so well worth it.”