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A Legacy of Giving By Ed Moorhouse

You have been the beneficiaries of the American way of life, the system of free enterprise operating in the realms of the mind and of the spirit.” —Former Ursinus College President Norman Egbert McClure ’15

The stunning view of Philadelphia from the Abele home includes an unobstructed look at Independence Hall—storied, historic and still prominent, even against a backdrop of modern buildings and amenities.

“I walk it every day,” said Joan Abele, surveying the city grid north of Walnut Street. “When I’m done, I like to look out and see where I’ve been.”

That Joan and Will Abele ’61 live just over 500 feet from the birthplace of America is fitting—and intentional. Will, a proud Ursinus alumnus and member of its board of trustees, is deeply inspired by our country’s founding fathers.

Ben Franklin said after the constitution was signed, ‘We have a republic if [we] can keep it,’” Will Abele said. “We can’t have a strong democracy unless we have strong citizens. That’s one thing that an Ursinus education provides.”

The Abeles, who have been supporting Ursinus College for decades, vehemently believe in that Ursinus education, so they want to ensure students have as clear a pathway as possible to benefit from it just as Will did.

“These days, too many college students are burdened by the millstone of unconscionable debt,” Abele wrote in an op-ed published by Philanthropy News Digest.

In January, the entire Ursinus community joined the Abeles at the Innovation and Discovery Center for the announcement of the single largest private gift in the college’s long history. Their $11 million pledge supports the Abele Scholars Program, which helps to fill the financial gaps confronting many students from low- and middle-income families.

In the absence of considerable debt, Abele said that students can “use their time and energy to build their social capital and form professional connections, which are just as valuable upon graduation as academic experience.”

“For Joan and me, giving back to the college is critically important. This is about more than giving students an advantage. It’s about giving them opportunity,” Abele said.

To truly understand where their philanthropic mindset comes from, it’s necessary to first have perspective, something given to Will Abele as a student by his mentor, the late Richard T. Schellhase ’45.

Will Abele’s portrait in the 1961 Ruby.

“I was going across campus to the mailboxes—which were in the middle of campus at the time—during my junior or senior year,” Abele recalled. “Dick turned to me and said, ‘You know, someday, this is going to be your responsibility. You’re going to come back as an alumnus and give back to this school.’”

What was his reaction to being charged with this responsibility?

“Well, as a 21-year-old, 60 years out seems like an eternity,” he said. “But I understood the weight of such a responsibility and the importance of acting on it. I think that even today, students understand the responsibility.”

Abele took the advice from Schellhase and decided to “pay it forward,” a credo of sorts and a callback to Ben Franklin. In fact, when the Abele Scholars Program was established in 2018, he asked that each of the students sign a copy of a letter from Franklin as a promise to not only give back to Ursinus one day, but to maintain a spirit of philanthropy and generosity throughout their lives.

In the letter, Franklin declines repayment of a loan and instead encourages the loan recipient to one day return the favor to someone else.

“He wanted to keep the good deed going,” Abele said. “And the Abele Scholars that Joan and I have come to know personally feel that way, too. Whatever your capacity of giving is—whether it be monetary or in some other way—you feel a personal responsibility to be involved.”

The Abele Scholars Program aims to support approximately 18 students every year from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. The scholars get $65,000 to address the costs of a college education beyond tuition, room and board, and assist with student debt upon graduation.

They receive $40,000 in tuition aid over four years; $2,000 for “startup” costs such as the purchase of a laptop or required books; $3,000 for academically enriching pursuits such as internships, summer courses or academic conferences; $8,000 in loan forgiveness; and additional resources and opportunities valued at $12,000. Too often, additional expenses such as these keep a full college experience out of reach for some students.

“When I was a student, we weren’t burdened with the kind of debt that students are burdened with today,” Abele said.

Joan Abele added, “The most fun for me is speaking with the students and knowing just how much this is helping them.”

Joan and Will met in Ocean City, N.J., and married in 1964. In 1972, Will joined Henry Troemner, LLC, and led the firm to its standing as a leading manufacturer of general laboratory equipment and precision weights, as well as a supplier of calibration standards in the global marketplace. He eventually became president and owner of the company before selling it in 2016. But their philanthropic efforts have always been a part of their lives.

Joan and Will with daughter Karen at the Bear2Bear Benefit & Bash. Photo by Dan Z. Johnson.

In addition to Schellhase and Franklin, the Abeles’ giving has also been inspired by the legacy of Stephen Girard, the namesake of another of Will’s alma maters, Girard College in Philadelphia. Girard’s model of philanthropy led the Abeles to seek out and support a variety of high impact priorities, including many at Ursinus.

They’ve donated to the Bear2Bear Student Emergency Fund; campus safety; the U-Imagine Center for Integrative and Entrepreneurial Studies; the Abele Science Equipment Challenge; an endowment for the head wrestling coach position; and an annual essay prize in ethics named for Schellhase.

Furthermore, as part of their $11 million gift (which took Ursinus past its $100 million Keep the Promise campaign goal), the new Commons has been named for Schellhase and his wife, Kay ’57.

As Ursinus wraps up its 150th anniversary celebration and the largest comprehensive campaign in its history, the Abeles and their “pay it forward” mentality are inspiring future philanthropists.

An announcement about the Abele’s record gift to Ursinus appears in Times Square in New York City.

“Donors don’t give to places that have needs; rather, they give to places that meet needs. That is why the Abeles’ generosity is so inspiring,” said Jill Leauber Marsteller ’78 P’18, senior vice president for advancement. “Donors like the Abeles build relationships with students, often providing guidance and mentorship and a whisper in the ear about someday paying forward what they receive to future generations. It is a selfless act, and it helps pave the way for new generations of philanthropists.”

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