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Fayette's Angel: Philanthropist from New Jersey helped keep community on the map
David Bolger of Ridgewood, N.J., has financed many items on wish lists at Upper Iowa University and in the community of Fayette.
SCOTT MUSSELL / Courier Staff Photographer

FAYETTE -- He makes strategic business deals worth millions. His checks carry multiple zeros. And he likes a small town and college in Northeast Iowa.

David Bolger, 74, is a financier and lives in New Jersey. His first association with Fayette came in 1964 when he sent out a letter soliciting business for his investment banking company.

The late Eugene Garbee was president of Upper Iowa University at the time. He asked Bolger for help investing the college's funds.

Five years later, the school fell behind in payments. Bolger provided free advice to the institution's finances in order and forgave $1.8 million in debt the university owed. Then he mounted an 11-year effort to ensure the private college's survival.

"I feel it is my responsibility to be supportive and help others in need," Bolger says.

Alan Walker, Upper Iowa's current president, frames the story more bluntly.

"He saved our university from financial collapse," Walker says.

Bolger's effort wasn't always appreciated.

"There was nothing I could do to improve the quality of education. But I could show them how to run the college like a business," he says. "Some people had to be fired. Changes had to be made. I was once called the s.o.b. from New York."

Fifteen years later, he received an honorary doctorate and distinguished service award from the university.

Bolger's generosity also extends to the community that surrounds Upper Iowa.

"David is Fayette's angel," City Clerk Christie Dennis says.

When honored by organizations around the country, Bolger always includes another title: Honorary Mayor of Fayette.

Over the past 31 years, the city has received more than $4 million for various city projects.

"In 1975, David put the city of Fayette's name as part interest owners in several real estate properties," Dennis says. "When the properties sold, the city received money from the sales."

Among other properties, the town became partial owners of a major bank in Michigan, an apartment building in New York, a warehouse in Texas and Kinney Shoe Stores in California.

Through the Bolger Foundation in Ridgewood, N.J., most of the donations to Upper Iowa were also real estate transfers. But Bolger has written checks, too.

"In actual cash, I guess it's about $3 million," he says.

Walker says one of the most significant changes Bolger recommended was launching an external degree program in the 1960s. Enrollment at Upper Iowa went from 200 to 6,000.

The university now has international centers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Canada. Students receive degrees online around the world. About 700 attend classes on campus.

"I don't know why people do what they do, but I know Mr. Bolger is very good at making things happen," says Bernard Pattison, 20-year member of the university's board of director.

Nick Serra, a member of Upper Iowa's liberal arts department, is also impressed.

"It's incredible how Bolger has invested in our campus and community," he says.

No buildings on campus bear Bolger's name. The university does have a collection of sculptures on the grounds created by Alfred Beadle. One in blue steel, "Involutions III," honors Bolger.

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Though his money has financed numerous items on the city's wish list -- including street improvements; nine additional holes at the golf course; a library expansion; new ambulances and firetrucks; warning sires and a dump truck -- Bolger requires little feedback.

"I don't see an annual report or question the City Council on how they spend the money. They are good stewards," Bolger says.

He also moved a building for a tourist center. One of his pet projects was the renovation of the Fayette Opera House.

"It's the community center for all kinds of gatherings," Bolger says.

One investment, however, needed his financial guidance. The philanthropist loaned money to a metal fabrication business that employed about 60 people.

"The business went bankrupt. I forgave the loan and worked twice as hard to get the company back on its feet. I don't believe in giving up."

Bolger's reputation is well-known in the community.

"I never met the man, but I know he has kept the town alive," said Kevin Converse, a loan officer at First State Bank.

Bolger arrived on his private jet at 10:30 a.m. Thursday for an event at Upper Iowa. He left town at 4:30 p.m. The philanthropist's son, T.J., accompanied him on the one-day trip to Northeast Iowa.

He clearly enjoyed himself.

"Being here is like coming home."

Contact Gloria Aleff at SBLGram@msn.com.

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