Vern Voigt’s father attended the University of Wisconsin Farm Short Course after returning home from World War II. His mother finished grade school.
While Oliver and Ione Voigt overcame their limited formal educations through hard work to carve out a relatively comfortable life, they envisioned a different path for their descendants. So every time a grandchild or great grandchild arrived, they set up a 529 investment plan to pay for their college education. Oliver also led by example, reinventing himself after retiring as an artificial inseminator by taking classes through H&R Block, then starting his own tax firm, getting his investment broker’s license, taking accounting classes and, at age 81, passing the Wisconsin exam to sell life insurance.
“They were able to make do, but they saw that education was your step into a better life,” Vern Voigt (BSCEE ’74) says. “My dad was always trying to make sure that everybody had an education.”
More than 40 years after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering, Vern Voigt is passing on his parents’ ideals. Voigt, who enjoyed a long career as a structural engineer, and his wife, Robin, recently committed a significant estate gift to the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. It is the largest single gift the department has ever received.
“We just decided it would be good that we leave a legacy behind, and where’s the best place to do that? Educating more people and giving them life-changing tools,” Vern says.
Vern and Robin’s latest contribution will bolster two of their existing scholarship funds, support initiatives around innovation and create two new funds for faculty: the Vernon V. and Robin D. Voigt Professorship in Civil and Environmental Engineering, which will support an experienced scholar, and the Vernon V. and Robin D. Voigt Assistant Professorship in Civil and Environmental Engineering, which will help attract young faculty. One of their existing scholarship funds helps draw undergraduate students from underrepresented groups.
“I am incredibly grateful for the most significant gift in the history of the department that Vern and Robin have provided,” says David Noyce, the Arthur F. Hawnn Professor and department chair. “Not only will we be able to support our faculty, but we will increase the diversity in our department and significantly enhance our undergraduate student population. Truly game-changing and transformative.”
The idea of supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds was inspired, in part, by Robin. She is drawing from her experiences as a volleyball player at Northwestern University and as a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she was involved in a number of initiatives for diversity in recruiting.
“It’s always been something that meant a great deal to us, to encourage people to expand their horizons and go into something different than their usual expectation,” says Robin, who retired from PwC in 2016.
Vern arrived in Madison as a wide-eyed 20-year-old after spending his first two years of college at UW-Manitowoc in his hometown. He says he chose civil engineering as a major because of the range of professional paths it offered.
“Do you like to build a structure? Are you into hydraulics? Are you into roads?” he says. “You can do a lot of different things in civil engineering. Things that you see and use every day. Things that everybody can see and use every day.”
In Vern’s case, it led him to myriad work experiences on nuclear power plants. He joined Sargent & Lundy, a Chicago-based consulting firm for the energy industry, after graduation. During a 20-year tenure, he performed designs in the office and engineering support in the field and also spent 3½ years in Seoul, South Korea, where he trained Korean engineers. He moved to the energy corporation Exelon in 1995 and worked at the company’s Zion Nuclear Power Station until retiring in 2013.
Vern and Robin both look back at their careers with satisfaction and trace their success back to their educations.
“Hopefully our legacy will allow the next generation of engineers to fulfill their dreams,” says Vern.
Author: Tom Ziemer