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Evelyn Wanke: Legacy honors a Hi-Line dream

Evelyn Wanke with a photo of her husband
Evelyn Wanke, at right with a photo of husband, Harold, working on a tractor and at left, near the homestead.

May 2, 2008 -- Carol Flahery, MSU News Service

Evelyn Wanke tends to describe other people more than she does herself. Even though there are very few "I"s in the story she tells, her presence is unmistakable. She is the barely visible ribbon tying together the stories of her family and, especially, of Harold, her husband of 46 years who died in 1995. And she is the ribbon around a surprise package that arrived at MSU last year -- a $2.7 million donation that will provide opportunities for students studying animal and range sciences.

The gift honors her late husband's wish that he had been able to go to college to become a veterinarian. While neither he nor Evelyn attended MSU, her gift will help build the MSU Animal Bioscience Teaching Building, with state-of-the-art classrooms and labs and a technology transfer center for distance education. In addition, the gift is structured so that Evelyn's heirs won't pay crippling estate tax.

Just how Wanke came to hand this gift to MSU is intimately tied to her life on the windswept land north of Rudyard, where people work hard, think things through and help make their luck.

Evelyn's story begins in 1912 when her father, Eivind Berge, left Norway. He tried to book passage on the Titanic, but his "misfortune" in missing that ship is why there is more to tell. He traveled to Alberta, Canada, and then to the United States, homesteading in Montana, just north of Rudyard.

The view near the homestead is much the same today as when her father arrived. A huge sky arches over open fields for miles in every direction. The Sweetgrass Hills are distant in the southwest, the Bears Paws far southeast. Going north, you have to be almost to the edge of the huge coulee carved by a Milk River tributary to realize that the expanse doesn't continue unbroken to the horizon. The coulee contains a banded cliff of both coal, which Berge mined, and dinosaur bones. (A teen-aged Jack Horner walked the coulee looking for bones long before he became MSU's leading dino-hunter.)

Wanke's mother, Clara Sanda, followed her brothers to Montana in 1912, where she met and married Berge. Evelyn was born in 1929, the youngest of four children. Evelyn met Harold Wanke when she was about 6 years old. On an errand to pick up groceries, her sister gave her an extra dime to buy herself and a girlfriend a treat. Out of the blue, Harold appeared and offered to carry the groceries. When Evelyn bought two Dixie cups of ice cream at the drugstore, the owner offered a third spoon so the girls could share with Harold.

"And that's the first time I remember Harold," Evelyn recalls.

Evelyn and Harold were sweethearts all through Rudyard High School, Harold a year ahead of Evelyn. She graduated valedictorian in 1947 and was offered scholarships to college. Harold couldn't afford college. Rather than leave him, Evelyn took a job at the Marias River Electric Cooperative. They married in 1949. Though they never had children, Evelyn and Harold were close to her sister Lillian's two daughters, Karen Cahill of Bozeman, and Lila Redding of Rudyard. Both are MSU graduates.

In 1960, the Wankes leased, then bought, land near her parents. Eventually, they raised cattle and grain on about 6,000 acres. Evelyn learned to drive a tractor, and the pair worked the farm as a team.

"Harold had a lot of talent. He had things thought out before they ever happened. I admired him, admired his abilities."

The Wankes never attended college, but MSU students will long benefit from their vision.
Evelyn said Harold was the first farmer in the area to haul grain with his own semi-truck and that he was quick to adopt strip farming to reduce soil erosion. After they sold their cattle and could travel, he saw air seeders in Australia and told Evelyn, "That's the future." The Wankes were featured on the cover of Seeding Today in 1994. To this day, the cover photo of the two of them in work clothes is one of Evelyn's favorites.

When an acquaintance asked Harold to buy stock in the Independence Bank of Havre, he did. And when others wanted to sell their stock, he borrowed to buy it rather than let the stock go to an out-of-state bank. In 2003, Evelyn realized that the stock had appreciated so much that estate taxes might make it impossible for her nieces to keep the homestead. That problem was solved when she worked with a consultant to set up a charitable remainder trust.

Jeff Jacobsen, dean of MSU's College of Agriculture, said that Wanke's $2.7 million gift is the largest single donation to date for the $15.65 million Animal Bioscience Building. Construction on the 40,000-square-foot building will begin in May.

"Mrs. Wanke's gift is instrumental in making this building project a reality," Jacobsen said.

In addition to her gift to MSU, Wanke also gave Concordia College a $2 million contribution and set aside $300,000 for Montana's Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp.

Wanke said it is difficult to explain what it's like to give away so much money, other than that the gifts are simply an expression of "gratitude to my Lord."