A remarkable thing happened to a group of Lowcountry eighth-graders in 1990.
An anonymous benefactor offered them a world of opportunity, but it wasn't free. If they met specific goals and obligations, they could walk across the stage with the Hilton Head Island High School class of 1995 with as much as $45,000 to continue their education.
H.E. McCracken Middle School invited 100 students to participate. Many were children with potential, but "at-risk" of aiming low, failing or dropping out. Some were brilliant, but perhaps lacked family funds to go to college, or the best college they could get into. Sixty-two joined, and 22 of them stuck with the program, or didn't move away. They graduated with scholarship money from a man they never knew.
"It was more than giving kids money for college," one of them said, 17 years later. "It let us know that we could do anything as long as we believed in ourselves."
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In 1995, the benefactor took on his second and final group, members of the classes of 1998 and 1999.
In total, he gave 58 graduates $1.6 million in scholarships. With another $628,000 to cover operations and other incentives over eight years, he gave away $2.2 million to help strangers strive for a better life.
The story intrigued the nation, which read about it in Parade magazine.
And the students puzzled over who the benefactor could be.
They found out a year ago this week when Richard D. "Dick" Ennen of Bluffton died.
The quiet, retired industrialist had agreed it could be revealed to them upon his death.
Many of the students paid respects at his Mass of Christian Burial and inurnment at St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church on Hilton Head.
Angela Tennison wrote in a newsletter the students dedicated to his memory that his gift "was a compass that pointed the way to a brighter future, a GPS that gave us turn-by-turn directions to get there (rerouting along the way), and even the vehicle to get there."
She now works at the White House.
KEEPERS OF THE SECRET
Ennen was 84 when he died. His obituary in The Island Packet didn't give a hint of his secretive generosity in the Lowcountry. But the scholarships were apparently the tip of the iceberg.
Ida Martin, founder of Bluffton Self Help, said, "He gave trailers for people who did not have a place to stay. He would help to build handicap ramps, floors -- anything I needed, he would help me."
Vera Bailey, director of the Pregnancy Center and Clinic on Hilton Head, formerly the Crisis Pregnancy Center, said Ennen anonymously gave major funding to the center for about 12 years. "His giving also extended to our clients," she said. "He bought a trailer for one who needed housing, and paid for the Catholic education for at least two of our clients' children."
He had a brand new truck delivered to one charity, and bought a bus for the Thumbs Up program in Beaufort.
Those who worked with him say two things: He never wanted it to be known what he gave, and the breadth of his giving is unlikely to be known because few people knew him and those who did were sworn keepers of the secret.
But following his death, a major gift was announced publicly when the Richard D. Ennen Charitable Remainder Trust gave $3 million to the Pope John Paul II Catholic School being planned for Okatie.
Ennen was raised in Ypsilanti, Mich., and educated in Jesuit schools. He was such a strong supporter of Jesuit programs and schools worldwide that a Jesuit priest flew from Rome to celebrate his funeral Mass.
'ON A PENSION'
Neither did Ennen's obituary give a whiff of his business success. He made his fortune manufacturing steel balls used in ball bearings. He created the NN Ball & Roller Co. in rural Erwin, Tenn., in 1980, about five years before moving to an oceanfront home in Palmetto Dunes. He would later move to the All Joy area of Bluffton, and finally to Gascoigne Bluff in Bluffton.
Forbes magazine described in 1995 how his company got started on a grand dare. Ennen had $60,000 in the bank but needed $3 million to crank up his factory. After visiting three banks, he realized, "What I needed was an order." With no factory, he got two orders, one from GM. He then got the loan, and his company took off in a hurry. It went public in 1994 and is now known as NN Inc. Ennen opened a plant in Walterboro, but it closed in 2001, a year after he retired as chairman.
Forbes reported in 1995: "At 67, Dick Ennen owns $45 million or so in NN Ball stock, about 25 percent of the outstanding shares, but he lives like a man on a pension. He spends most of his time these days in Bluffton, outside Hilton Head, where he owns a small house and a 25-foot outboard motorboat -- nothing fancy. He fishes, plays golf, eats lunch at the Squat & Gobble. He hasn't forgotten what the Jesuits taught him in (Campion) boarding school and (John Carroll) college, and he spends a lot of time on charities, especially food-for-the-poor projects and a high school in Tanzania."
At Hilton Head High, Susan Carter Barnwell was about the only person who knew who he was. She was the director and only employee of the program, which they called Strive.
It is in no way related to a similar program that followed it at the high school, called Strive to Excel. That program ceased operations at the end of 2011 following controversy over its finances and board governance.
The original Strive remains in place, and disbursed some scholarship money in 2012. Barnwell said its board currently consists of herself, Emory S. Campbell and former Hilton Head High principal Bill Evans, now chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education.
Barnwell said Ennen wrote her a check about every 90 days, but once paid with a lot in Belfair that she had to sell, and once with Cleveland Indians stock.
People say he could be a little eccentric. He was thoughtful, but not warm and fuzzy. He knew what he wanted and expected it to happen. He was low-key. "You would never know the man had any money," said a former golfing buddy. He delighted in the joy he brought to people through his giving.
Ennen's Strive program was driven by about 130 volunteers. It consisted of mentoring, tutoring, career exploration at brown bag lunches, college visits, volunteer work by the students, essay contests, and contracts signed by the student and a parent outlining specific academic and personal goals for the semester.
Students earned scholarship dollars on a formula that only Barnwell knew. But they quickly learned that the more they participated, the more scholarship vouchers they got at awards ceremonies at the end of each semester. The vouchers came in envelopes with $100 bills pinned to them.
Ennen was a mentor to a child in the first class. He attended all the awards ceremonies. After his funeral, students were surprised to see that he kept at his home binders full of news about their achievements.
"Just knowing they could go to college helped them see themselves in a different way," Barnwell said. "In the process of earning it, they became a different person."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.