Friends of James L. Kiffe knew he was an avid investor. But when the former bookkeeper died and left a $7.5 million estate to the school system — the biggest donation in Aquinas Catholic Schools' history — fellow Aquinas graduate William Bantle was shocked.
"I never realized that he had that much," Bantle said. "We never discussed this that seriously."
Aquinas Catholic Schools announced Kiffe's landmark gift Monday.
Most of Kiffe's bequest — about $6 million — will help pay for student scholarships. The remaining 20 percent will pay for things such as facility upgrades and new technology.
Kiffe, who graduated from Aquinas in 1942 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II, died in October at Sterling House in La Crosse. He was 87.
"He wanted to continue providing the gift of a Catholic education, even beyond his lifetime," said Kurt Nelson, president of Aquinas Catholic Schools.
Kiffe worked at Northern Engraving while participating in the Coulee Investment Club for more than 45 years.
Now, Kiffe's skillful investing and generosity will benefit future generations. The gift is a testament to the moral code schools like Aquinas try to impart to their students, said Most Rev. William Callahan, the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse.
"We are educating an entire human being," he said. "Educating a mind, a heart, a soul."
Thanks to Kiffe's gift, more students will be able to qualify for financial aid, and those that already use it will receive more assistance, Nelson said.
About a quarter of Aquinas students depend on financial aid. In 2011-12, yearly tuition rates ranged between $2,250 and $5,490, depending on the age and other factors.
"It's going to be an incredible opportunity for our families," Nelson said.
The school received a $3 million donation from the Reinhart family in 1996 to help finance the construction of the Reinhart Athletic Complex.
The amount of Kiffe's gift may be surprising, but the gesture isn't, said Lee Lomas, who works at Sterling and was friends with Kiffe.
"Jim was just a really nice guy," Lomas said. "He never had a bad thing to say about anybody."
Kiffe never married or had children, but would often talk about people he knew from his Aquinas days.
In the end, Kiffe made the school his family, said Bantle.
"Jim was a very mild guy," Bantle said. "He did what he wanted to do."