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Twenty years of excellence

SOLON– Excellence is a Solon tradition.
Numerous appearances in state-level athletic contests; back-to-back-to-back-to back (yes, four in a row) football championships; regular first-class ratings in a wide array of musical competitions; consistently scoring above the national average in standardized testing.
And now, the community is celebrating 20 years of financially supporting students’ education with an annual fall gala.
The Solon Dollars for Scholars Fall Gala is held in a single evening each October, with a catered meal, cash bar, and live and silent auctions. The entire community is invited, and all proceeds from ticket sales and auctions go into the Solon Dollars for Scholars fund that supplies seniors with first-year college scholarships.
The idea to organize the local Dollars for Scholars chapter was launched in 1991, after rural Solon resident Dick Schwab became a member of the national Scholarship America advisory board.
“I saw these chapters springing up all over Iowa,” said Schwab. He invited Scholarship America Senior Director Curt Trygstaad to speak with a group of nine Solon community leaders who were interested in starting a local chapter.
“That group of founding board members said, ‘This has Solon written all over it,’” said Schwab. “We chartered the chapter, started raising money, and decided after our first year of organization to start making scholarship awards to every Solon student right away.”
That initial intention of giving a scholarship to every Solon graduating senior who applies has remained a tenet of Solon Dollars for Scholars since day one. Therefore, every senior who fills out an application and enrolls in a post-secondary education experience, whether at a private college, state institution, technical school or community college, receives money. The practice has been maintained throughout 20 years largely through funds raised at the annual gala.
In the last few years, the award has been $600 each.
Pat Zimmerman became a co-organizer for that event early in its history, and remained on the planning committee for 10 years. She recalls many galas of days gone by.
“At that time held at the high school gym,” she said. “Well, the old high school, which is now the middle school. One of the first years, we had a Halloween-themed party, with Italian food catered and served by junior and senior students. Some were in costumes. I remember, Katherine Burford was dressed as a witch and greeted everyone at the door.”
Zimmerman and co-committee members Sandy Phillips and Diane Strawn planned themes for subsequent galas as well, including a Hawaiian theme, a pirate theme, and a Texas Hold ‘Em casino night, to name a few, with food, table center pieces and decorations to support each year’s theme. And guests were invited to dress accordingly. On Mexican theme night, many people wore sombreros. During the ‘50s theme party, poodle skirts and saddle shoes, straight-legged jeans and slicked-back hairstyles were abundant.
“It was a lot of fun to see what people would do with their costumes,” said Zimmerman, “and we always had so much fun planning it.”
Though many people conjure up visions of black-tie affairs, this gala has always been a come-as-you-are event, with evening wear and blue jean attire equally acceptable.
In 1997, the event moved to the Highlander hotel and banquet center in Iowa City, and then in 2009 came to Schwab’s round Celebration Barn at 245th St. NE, off Sugar Bottom Road.
In the last few years, gala organizers have dropped the themed approach, but the event is no less lively and entertaining.
“I remember one year, Gene Krob was at the gala,” said Zimmerman, speaking of the late Solon resident who was a staunch Spartan fan and well-known figure in the community. “Someone had refinished an old rocking chair. Gene ended up purchasing the chair, but then put it back into the auction to be sold again. That chair got bought and sold four times during the evening.”
There are often surprises during each auction, both silent and live versions. Solon Dollars for Scholars board member Penny Tompkins, whose husband John was one of the chapter’s founding members, said that’s what keeps it fresh every year.
“It’s a good-natured competition when people are bidding on the same basket,” she said. “That’s half the fun.”
Themed baskets with goodies, gift certificates, jewelry, party supplies, and any number of other wares are plentiful at the gala’s silent auctions, as well as handmade furniture, fine art paintings and photographic prints, weekend getaway packages and many other unique objects, all of which are donated by individuals, businesses and companies. Hawkeye items are always auction favorites, from black-and-gold memorabilia to game tickets and tailgate parties. The live auction features a huge array of desirable items, too. Local business people often donate their products and services, such as landscaping labor and/or materials, event venue rentals, big vacation packages or golf club memberships. Some of the more popular auction items are group experiences, where several people can pool their resources and bid on items such as a catered pool party, a spring mushroom hunt, group brunches, pizza-making parties or intimate dinner affairs. With group items, the cost of large-ticket items can be spread over several buyers and make it easier on everyone’s wallets.
In fact, there are auction items for just about every budget. Tompkins said the gala’s solicitation committee receives more new and interesting items every year.
“We are getting a nice variety of things, in a lot of different price ranges, so anybody can come and buy a $25 basket or a $5,000 item,” she said. “The stuff is donated so proceeds all go into the fund.”
Even a portion of the ticket price goes into the scholarship fund, so whether people bid on auction items or not, their attendance is critical to maintaining the ability to award all of Solon’s scholarship applicants.
“We have some people who come very year. It’s a commitment they have made,” said Tompkins. “We have people who come after their kids receive a scholarship and they want to pay it back. I think people have the most fun when they bring a group of people they know.”
Whatever reason, Tompkins said, it’s important that people just attend.
“We need those who pay it forward,” she said. “When your student is in middle school, that is the time to make a commitment for the next six years to come to the gala and help to raise revenues for kids who maybe won’t have the chance to go to school otherwise.”
Schwab said the Solon community has always strongly supported Dollars for Scholars’ mission. In its 20 years, through gala proceeds and the generosity of its donors, Solon Dollars for Scholars has been able to disseminate a total of $619,215 in first-year scholarships for 1,121 of Solon’s graduating seniors.
“This community is great,” he said. “It is all that is good about Iowa. The awareness of the importance of education is apparent here. The broad support for post-secondary education, from people who are willing and able to make large gifts to people who are able to give not large gifts, but significant shares of their resources… we have that all over Solon. And God love ‘em all.”
However, he noted, the need for higher education is changing, as well as related costs, and the Solon Dollars for Scholars organization has to adapt to meet those challenges.
“Twenty years ago, many people still believed that if you got a high school degree you were probably okay. Now, most people no longer believe that. Most people believe that some kind of post-secondary education is the portal to a middle class lifestyle. Increasingly, it has become more necessary,” said Schwab.
It’s of note that Solon’s climbing enrollment has escalated Dollars for Scholars’ financial commitment as well. The class of 2010 had 85 students; last year’s senior class contained 98. This year, 104 seniors will graduate from Solon High School.
However, this year’s junior class numbers 142, a significant increase and an unprecedented demand on the Dollars for Scholars budget.
“We are struggling with how to continue to give a first-year scholarship to every student,” Tompkins said. “People in this area know how important it is to get an education, and they know students benefit from it. We really need everyone’s support. I hope we see everyone at the gala,”
Solon Dollars for Scholars initiated a capital campaign in 2010 to raise larger amounts of revenue for multi-year scholarships as well. To date, that portion of the program has given $122,650 total to 104 second-, third-, and fourth-year college students to help keep them in school.
“I don’t think a lot of people see the gratitude of our students,” Tompkins said. “It’s overwhelming. When I have kid coming to me two to three years after graduation and say, ‘I appreciate your support because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,’ I think, wow, we have really made a difference in someone’s life.”
Attend the Solon Dollars for Scholars Fall Gala on Saturday, Oct. 13, and help keep a 20-year tradition of excellence alive.