by LAURA HAYES
The school doesn’t bear their names, nor will you find them on any of the buildings. Yet on Thursday, Cotter Schools will honor five men who have been key figures in the history of the school.
Thursday marks the second annual Cotter Schools’ Founder’s Day. Last year, the school looked back on the history of the individuals who helped establish Cotter, like founder Bishop Patrick Heffron and first Bishop of the Winona Diocese Joseph Cotter. This year, Cotter will honor five benefactors from the Hiawatha Education Foundation (HEF) and founders of Fastenal — four of whom are Cotter alumni — Steve Slaggie (’57), Bob Kierlin (’57), Mike Gostomski (’58), Henry (Van) McConnon (’57) and Jack Remick.
Cotter Schools President Sister Judith Schaefer calls the men the “very silent benefactors” of Cotter Schools. HEF was established in 1990 and has since provided millions of dollars in support of both the grade school and high school over the years.
“I felt that it was time to acknowledge and honor them,” Schaefer explained. “I feel like without them, it would be hard for Cotter to be here.”
In 1992, HEF benefactors set up a foundation to provide Cotter students scholarships to secondary schools, be it four- or two-year colleges. The scholarships amounts range, depending on the student’s academic record and extracurricular involvement, and can be renewed every school year. Last year, 64 members of the graduating class of 2015 were awarded a total of $334,800 in HEF scholarships. Schaefer estimates that more than $10.4 million has been awarded to students since 1990.
Slaggie still fondly looks back at his years at Cotter, calling them “golden.” He remembers Sister Lucilla, who taught Spanish and helped him prepare for Spanish courses when he went on to St. John’s University, where he was able to be placed in advanced Spanish due to his studies at Cotter. He remembers visiting the former Catholic recreation center where the class would meet after school to listen to records and attend Friday night dances.
“It was a very good and warm experience,” Slaggie recalled. He added that he enjoyed the social aspect of the school and the “good, clean, warm relationships with my fellow students,” which he said continue at Cotter today.
Since their graduation from Cotter, Slaggie and the other men founded Fastenal, a Winona-based company that initially began by selling fasteners like screws and nuts before expanding to offer a wide variety of services like inventory management and tool repair. Slaggie cited several of the skills that he learned at Cotter, such as discipline and organization, that helped him later in his career.
“We’re a product of the Catholic system in Winona,” Slaggie said. “I believe we all felt strongly on the quality of education we received.”
The five men, as part of HEF, have since helped Cotter lower its tuition, making education more affordable to more students. When Schaefer asked why, the men responded that they wanted to remove the barrier that tuition causes. “‘We want it available to every student,’” she recalled the men saying.
Slaggie said that while students still have to pay a tuition, it’s now a “sliding scale” depending on the family’s means. “Cotter doesn't refuse anyone based on tuition,” he added.
Slaggie, Gostomski, Kierlin, Remick and McConnon have also helped change the physical structure of Cotter by purchasing the former College of St. Theresa campus where the school currently resides.
Although he may not be an alumnus, Slaggie said that Remick has been a major benefactor, and has helped other Catholic institutions like Lourdes High School in Rochester and the University of Notre Dame.
Cotter faculty and students will honor the five men at the Founder’s Day Program on November 19 at 1 p.m. in the Centennial Gym on the Cotter Campus.
“My strongest sentiment is that HEF is an unusual and extraordinary example of philanthropy,” Schaefer said, adding that most schools do not have “generous” and “devoted alums” that give back so fully. “Cotter is blessed to have them. We owe them a great word of thanks.”