During the spring scholarship awards ceremony, Stoughton High School students wait anxiously to see who won the anticipated Quinn and Verna Smet Scholarship.

Given annually since 1994, the scholarship has awarded 26 students roughly $575,000, providing full tuition and fees to a Stoughton High School student who excelled in school, but wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford tuition.

During that ceremony, the scholarship is often accepted with smiles and tears.

John and Cindy Smet, of the Smet Foundation, started the scholarship in honor of John’s parents, Quinn and Verna Smet. Quinn was a substitute teacher at Stoughton High School for about 12 years and the family emphasized the importance of higher education.

Of the six Smet siblings, all have undergraduate degrees and five have masters degrees. Cindy and John have had successful investment careers, they told the Hub last week, and are happy to give these scholarships to relieve the financial burden of higher education.

They believe education is the path to self-reliance and independence.

“I believe that there is so much dignity in taking care of yourself and your family,” Cindy said. “We expect people to do that, but we can’t expect people to do that without the right tools. You need a good education to be able to take care of yourself.”

The SHS scholarship committee chooses the student who receives the award. Recipients don’t apply; rather, it is a surprise announcement at the end of the annual awards ceremony.

A speaker announces the scholarships one by one, starting off with the smaller amounts building to the large scholarships. The Quinn and Verna Smet scholarship is always one of the last given.

“You see jaws drop and eyebrows raise,” Verna said. “It is pretty dramatic.”

Verna and Quinn have never missed a Smet scholarship giveaway. They enjoy watching students be rewarded for their diligence and consciousness. To them, the scholarship tells the recipients that “somebody can see a future in you,” Quinn said.

However, the couple emphasizes that although this scholarship is in their name, John and Cindy are the people who deserve the recognition for their gift of education.

“This isn’t about us,” Verna said. “This is about John and Cindy’s generosity and their love for education.”

Quinn served in SASD for 25 years total, both on the school board and as a substitute middle and high school teacher. He is well-known for joking with students, including his famous bit of pointing at a frowning student and telling them not to smile, which inevitably brings them smile.

Then there are some students who see Quinn in the hallways and automatically smile, just so they can spite him, suggesting they’re not taking his “advice.”

Creating opportunity

In the years leading up to her graduation, Stoughton High School graduate Cassi Ott wasn’t sure how they’d make finances work for college.

Being raised by a single mother, she was always promised they’d figure it out.

Those financial worries were erased after it was announced that she was the recipient of the Smet scholarship.

“I thought ‘No, really? Not me,” she said.

The scholarship relieved her of all tuition and fees at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, making her academic path that much smoother, Ott said.

Her high school career kept her busy, as she played clarinet in band and was the editor of the Norse Star student newspaper her senior year.

It allowed Ott to forgo having a full-time job and a constant cloud of financial debt lingering over her head through her four undergraduate years. As a result, she was able to focus on her studies and excel in her academic career, she said.

The scholarship also provided her the opportunity to travel with the Blugold marching band to Singapore, Spain and Italy – something that would not have been possible without that scholarship.

She’s since graduated debt free with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and is now pursuing a graduate degree at UW-Whitewater in clinical mental health counseling.

Becoming a family

Everyone involved in the Smet scholarship becomes a family, Ott said.

She still keeps in touch with John and Cindy throughout the year. They exchange Christmas cards, and Ott said she saves every one of them.

“They are such wonderful people,” Ott said.

Whenever John and Cindy are in town, they try to arrange a dinner for all the scholarship recipients, so they can engage with the group and hear what everyone is up to.

For them, they love to hear how passed recipients are doing. Cindy keeps all the cards that students send expressing their gratitude and she sometimes cries after she reads them.

In a particularly memorable card for Cindy, the recipient expressed her difficult childhood with a father and a step father leaving her mother to raise two young children. The recipient said she felt guilty asking her mother to help with college, but with that scholarship, college was now possible.

“This gift you have given me is a true miracle. I wish I had the right words to truly express my gratitude for you. I promise that I will use this opportunity to better my life and those around me,” the letter reads.

At the end, the anonymous recipient wrote “I hope to find ways to pay forward the gift you have given me. Maybe even someday I can help someone else attend college like you have helped me.”

Contact Mackenzie at mackenzie.krumme@wcinet.com.