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Donor Gives WPI $7.8 Million 70 Years After He Had To Drop Out

Wednesday, April 03, 2013


Henry Poplawski was forced to leave WPI 7 decades ago, but did not forget the school.

Retired military pilot Henry Poplawski, a Worcester native who was forced to drop out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) more than seven decades ago due to financial hardship, has committed $7.8 million through a planned gift for student scholarships at WPI, representing one of the largest gifts the university has ever received.

Giving Back and Supporting Others

Mr. Poplawski, 98, who attended WPI in the mid-1930s, completed his studies on the West Coast before embarking on an impressive career as a pilot, test pilot, and aeronautical engineer. Now he is giving back a heartfelt thanks to WPI for giving him the start he needed as a young adult.

“I owe WPI a lot,” said Poplawski, a member of the class of ‘39 who now lives in Dayton, Ohio. “WPI got me on the right path. I probably wouldn’t have gone to college otherwise. I had no money to complete my studies, so I want to help others continue theirs.”

The gift will support scholarships for WPI undergraduates with financial need. Through WPI’s $200 million fundraising effort, “if…The Campaign to Advance WPI,” the university seeks to raise $75 million for student scholarships, making it possible for more qualified and deserving students to earn a WPI degree.

With Poplawski’s gift, WPI has raised approximately $53 million toward that goal, and a total of more than $137 million toward the overall $200 million goal. The campaign also seeks funding to support faculty and academic programs, campus life and facilities, and unrestricted annual support.

Thanking Poplawski

For Poplawski, the gift is a reminder of the impact WPI had on his early years and is his way of giving back to help those students in need. “I don’t want anyone else to have to leave school because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Poplawski’s generous gift will be celebrated on April 3 at WPI’s annual Scholarship Dinner, which recognizes the contributions of the university’s scholarship donors and the achievements of scholarship recipients.

WPI officials expressed deep thanks and appreciation for Poplawski’s generosity. “We are humbled and eternally grateful for Mr. Poplawski’s gift,” said WPI President and CEO Dennis D. Berkey, who with his wife, Cathy, recently visited Poplawski to thank him personally for his commitment to WPI, and presented him with an honorary bachelor of science in engineering degree. “His determination to complete his studies and then launch an outstanding career – all the while remembering his WPI roots – is truly extraordinary. We are confident that his generosity and foresight will serve a new generation of WPI students.”

When WPI officials invited Poplawski to the Scholarship Dinner on April 3, he respectfully declined, noting that he is “done flying.”

Overcoming Adversity to See Great Success

An ambitious young man with an affinity for building kites and model airplanes, Poplawski overcame personal adversity to achieve success. The second son of three boys and four girls, he lost both parents by the age of 12 and later lived at his oldest sister’s house. His uncle gave him $200 to start the first semester at WPI, but he was forced to drop out after his freshman year. He then enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1939.

He went on to fly with the British, engaged in a war in North Africa, flying over Saudi Arabia, India, and into China. After 13 months the expanded airline was militarized and the United States was involved in World War II. After a year flying in Africa for Pan American Airways, Poplawski started working for the Glenn L. Martin Co. in 1942, test flying the B-26 Marauder.

Following World War II, he received his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical/mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California in 1948. He returned to the Martin Co. as an aeronautical engineer and was recalled in 1951 to active duty in the Korean War to fly Martin-made B-29s.

Poplawski then was sent to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, where he set up the Guided Missile Training School, and later became its director. He trained mechanics and operators for the Martin-made pilot-less missiles known as “Matador” and “Mace.”

His career field changed from flying to air/aerospace technical intelligence in his next duty as a four-year assignment to the CIA in Washington, D.C. He retired from the Air Force in 1966 with 20 years of active duty and 12 years in the reserves.

In retirement, Poplawski is a member of the Caterpillar Club, an informal association of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. During a test flight of a B-26G near Baltimore in 1944, he had to bail out through the door in the nose wheel compartment, according to documents.

Chronicling his Life in Poetry

In addition, Poplawski is an avid poet and has written many poems chronicling his life, including one titled “Claytrice” that honors his wife and one titled “Who am I?” (I am an Aviator—A Bird Man) that showcases his life in flight. In its last stanza, Poplawski shares his philosophy of flying. It may very well also come to symbolize the sense of spirit with which he has lived:

“Pilots are in the air, on the sea and in the everyday world,” he wrote. “Aviator is for the birds such as in Aviaries. And so it goes; you have to live with it.”


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