As a child, Leonard Gigowski always caught the 6:30 a.m. bus to St. Francis Minor Seminary. That way, he’d be in church in time for 7 a.m. Mass and in class by the time the bell rang.
Gigowski grew older and St. Francis eventually became St. Thomas More High School, but the humble, hard-working man’s commitment to his faith and education never wavered, not even in death.
“It was very, very clear that his faith was incredibly important to him,” said Dan Steffes, the alumni director and events coordinator at St. Thomas More High School, who knew Gigowski since he was a student at Thomas More himself. “He had a profound respect for the sacrifice his parents made to send him to Catholic schools.”
During his lifetime, Gigowski set up the Leonard Gigowski Catholic Education Foundation, a scholarship fund given to students who do not qualify for the choice program. The amount in the fund is $13 million right now.
This school year, $489,000 was given to 131 students. Each student had either one-third or one-half of the $10,800 yearly tuition payment covered by scholarships from the foundation. As long as their grades remain high, students can continue to receive the scholarship every year they attend St. Thomas More.
St. Thomas More plans to give away 5 percent of the fund each year in order to keep assisting students indefinitely.
Jeff Korpal, a good friend of Gigowski, said Gigowski was the “epitome” of the devout Catholic. Gigowski used to tell Korpal about his call to become a priest. However, war broke out, and after serving in the military, Gigowski came home to a family with very little money.
He went straight to work. He worked at Roundy’s grocery store as a butcher, investing wisely in the company’s stock. He eventually had the funds to purchase a corner store to sell his own meats. In addition, he owned a night club, a dance studio and several residential properties in the Merrill Park neighborhood.
A man with no kids and no wife, he did well for himself and beyond. And he remembered his alma mater.
“He was a strong believer in Catholic education and a very devout Catholic,” Larry Haskin, Gigowski’s friend and attorney, said. “He understood the importance of Catholic education and instilling Catholic values at a young age.”
Gigowski made many generous donations to St. Thomas More throughout the years, giving about $25,000 annually. In the early 2000s, he made a contribution of around $700,000, a donation which Korpal said “saved the school.”
On Gigowski’s 90th birthday in 2015, Korpal brought Gigowski to St. Thomas More. All 500 students, whom Gigowski affectionally called his kids, sang him “Happy Birthday” in the school’s gym.
“He just melted,” Korpal said. “I was crying. It was so neat for this guy.”
After the song, Gigowski, a shy man, made a speech reminding students to love God first and work hard every day, and in return, God will provide.
The same year, Gigowski discovered he had cancer, and a short amount of time to live. He refused to do treatments or take medication.
“If God decided it’s my time to go, I’m going,” he told Korpal. Three weeks later, he passed away.
Although Gigowski had saved much of his earnings, his friends never knew how much he had. Korpal said Gigowski drove a car that was 15 years old, dressed nice but never flashy, and no one would think he had a penny to his name.
Every year, Gigowski told Steffes he’d give his annual amount to St. Thomas More, and they’d get the rest when he was dead. In his wildest dreams, Steffes imagined Gigowski would give the school maybe $4 million. But $13 million is a “game changer,” Steffes said.
“If there’s a family that really wants to attend St. Thomas More, we do what we can to make it possible,” Steffes said. “Leonard made it possible for more people than he’s aware.”
“He spent nothing on his life so that when he was done with his life, he could pass it onto his kids,” Korpal said. “Fortunately, his kids were students at St. Thomas More.”