By Bill Sweet
Among the family of Westfield State alumni, there is a group who might not have been able to graduate, without the generosity of a man they never knew.
That’s how Paul W. Dower wanted it. A World War II veteran, printer, engraver, graphic designer and lifelong skier-spelunker-hiker, Dower spent the last years of his century-long life helping people anonymously.
Content to fly under the radar, the former aviator spent part of his accumulated wealth giving a financial
boost to final-semester Westfield State students. His support made the University’s Last Mile Fund possible,
a fund with a 97 percent success rate in helping students make it to graduation.
“It was exactly what I needed at that moment,” says Desiree Santiago ’20, a first-generation student who found herself short of the credits needed to graduate. With family obligations hanging in the balance, she couldn’t wait for a fresh round of federal grant applications. The Last Mile Fund allowed her to make up her remaining credits over the summer and graduate.
The Dower name is familiar to anyone who knows Westfield State; the Catherine Dower Performing and Fine Arts Center bears the name of his philanthropic sister, who taught on campus from 1956 to 1990, and who, before her passing in 2017, donated $1 million to the University, setting the record as the single-largest gift in university history.
Over the years, Paul took several courses at Westfield State but never graduated— however, his devotion to his sister and his awareness of her commitment to the institution inspired his giving.
When he passed last year, Paul would break his sister’s record, leaving a gift that will amount to $3.5 million.
The gift endowed the Last Mile Fund with $1 million and directed another $1 million to establish the Paul W. Dower Live Strong Excellence Award. The balance of the bequest is in a trust fund that will be dispersed over the next five years.
The Paul W. Dower Live Strong Excellence Award is a first for the University; granting $10,000 per year for four years to be awarded to high-achieving Westfield State students. “It is hard to overstate the transformational nature of this gift,” says Erica Broman, Ed.D., vice president for Institutional Advancement and executive director of the Westfield State Foundation.
The “Live Strong” moniker comes from Dower’s determined approach to life, says Lisa McMahon, director of Institutional Advancement and Stewardship for the University. “That’s how he lived his life. He pushed through everything,” she says. Dower remained active well into his final years — he skied until he was close to 90, only stopping after a cycling accident and failing eyesight slowed him down— he was determined to live to see 100, in his home. Which he did, passing away nine days after his 100th birthday.
Born June 4, 1920, one of three children to Lawrence F. and Marie (Barber) Dower, Paul grew up in South Hadley. He was most proud of becoming an Eagle Scout. In school, he shot photos for the school newspaper and sang with the glee club, and as a young man worked at Valley Photo Engraving (now Valley Etching, Engraving & Design) in Holyoke, where he would eventually settle.
With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the US Army Signal Corps, where he was assigned to the 951st Engineers Topographic Company. As a specialist in photogrammetry, taking aerial photographs to identify and accurately measure topography and ground features, he served in England, Africa, and Italy. Upon his return to the States, he worked for the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram.
His greatest love was the outdoors and throughout his life, he developed passions and introduced people to them: skiing, canoeing, hiking, spelunking, mountain climbing, cycling, trailblazing, gardening, and more.
Near the close of his first half-century of life in 1968, Dower became a founding member of the Explorers Club
of Springfield. The group initially concentrated on hiking and spelunking, but soon expanded to canoeing and kayaking. Paul regularly canoed the Connecticut River, but his favorite canoe trips were with other Explorers to James River Bay in Canada.
“After 50 years on the slopes, Dower still has the power,” declared the Holyoke Sun in a 1996 article that looked back at his decades of skiing. Then 76, he told the Sun he still skied 100 days a year. “It just gets in your blood,” Dower said. “If you sit home and do nothing you just fall apart.”
New to skiing, the recent veteran enjoyed skiing raw terrain in Vermont, where he had a camp at the time. After hearing of plans to build a ski area on the state’s second highest peak, Dower was intrigued. Soon, for the cost of $1,000, Dower became one of the founding investors of Killington Mountain Resort & Ski Area and earned himself a lifetime membership there. That initial investment and subsequent payout opened him up to another love, investing and the stock market. His ability to give such transformational gifts one might say resulted from Dower’s love for the slopes.
McMahon remembers first getting to know Dower through his sister. “He said to me, ‘If I gave you $25,000, could that pay for some student who couldn’t afford to go to the school?’” she recalls.
McMahon then met with staff at the University and collectively identified a way to make that $25,000 work for several students, rather than just one. Thus, the Last Mile Fund was established to help the many students who need a little extra financial assistance to graduate.
“We have a lot of students who, especially in their last academic year, are forced to prioritize their personal lives over their academic lives,” says Nicole West, assistant director of retention & engagement, who was among those with whom McMahon collaborated. “They’re having to manage a lot while still earning their degrees.”
For example, Maria Perez ’18 was first of the seven children in her family to graduate high school. She says that her position of being the first to graduate college was precarious, if not for the Last Mile Fund.
In 2018, having still no idea who gave her that final boost, Perez wrote a thank you note to the University for the anonymous donor, “College hasn’t been easy for me, but it has taught me that there are really great caring people out there… I have struggled for most of my life while trying to support my family as a single mother of two wonderful children. I have had many minimum wage jobs which lead to nowhere. I am so excited and fortunate to break the cycle and make a difference.”
McMahon shared that note with Paul and said that of all the notes and letters she gave him, he would often return to that letter. It touched him so deeply, that it moved him to make an additional gift and led to his historic posthumous gift.
After learning of the large gift made by Dower, McMahon reached out to Perez saying, “Don’t ever question your voice, because it was heard, loud and clear, by our donor; your story matters.”
Perez teaches preschool in Holyoke and is a year into earning a master’s degree through Mount Holyoke College’s Urban Teachers Pathways Program—giving a new generation of students that boost.
“I grew up the same way they did, very underprivileged,” she says. “So, I decided that’s where my heart is, with these students … and I’m loving it.”
Paul W. Dower spent the better part of his 100 years helping, encouraging, and inspiring others he encountered on his life’s journey. Even long after his passing, many Westfield State students will benefit from his transformational generosity.