Bringing Educational Opportunities to Remote Areas

Humble beginnings were a temporary obstacle for Donald Sturm, a self-described “kid from Brooklyn” whose father, like many other families of the time, lost everything when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began in 1929.  

Sturm speaks affectionately today of “great parents” who encouraged him to become the first in his family to graduate from college. He earned three college diplomas (including a law degree from the University of Denver and a master’s of law in taxation from New York University) – serving in the U.S. Army after being an undergraduate – and then, over the next five decades, built an empty bank account into a fortune that eventually put him on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans.

“Each of those degrees motivated me toward creating the career I wanted for myself, and now I’m motivated to help other people do the same thing through education,” said the 87-year-old chairman of the board for Sturm Financial Group, an independent banking organization and parent company of ANB Bank, which has $2.6 billion in assets.

The life he has lived should be available to anyone, said the Denver-based millionaire, whose generous gift to the CMU Foundation will help fund a Mechatronics Mobile Learning Lab that will bring new educational opportunities to remote areas of western Colorado. 

“Whether people choose to be in a trade, go to a community college or a four-year university, education will add to the quality of their lives.”  

Mechatronics is a manufacturing and technology discipline that integrates software, programmable electronic control sensors, robotics and mechanical systems into automated equipment and advanced manufacturing processes. The new, state-of-the-art training facility will enable WCCC to bring classes to areas of western Colorado that previously had no access to such opportunities. The $458,144 donation, made in conjunction with ANB Bank, was part of a record-breaking $9.6 million fundraising effort by the CMU Foundation, and the new laboratory on wheels will be the third major contribution the Sturm family has made to CMU. A previous gift funded the Sturm Family Manufacturing Lab at Western Colorado Community College (WCCC).

“The philosophy Don has described not only describes who he is as a person, but also resonates with the culture of our bank,” said Vance Wagner, regional president for ANB Bank in western Colorado. “We believe that helping people get a better education leads to a better life and a healthier community, which is one of the core principles of our organization.”

“Not everybody in Colorado lives close to a higher education facility. In more-remote areas, education has to be brought to the people who want it and need it,” said Sturm, who spent 28 years with Peter Kiewit Sons, one of the largest employee-owned construction companies in the nation, and eventually earned the title vice chairman. “This lab will enable people in rural areas to learn a trade, enhance their lives and become a part of the American dream.”

Sturm’s philanthropy is traceable, in part, to his father, Mark Sturm, who was raised by an aunt after emigrating to the U.S. from Austria as a young man. Sturm’s father saved, invested and rose to prominence as a restaurant manager before losing all in the crash of 1929. When Don Sturm was working his way through law school at the University of Denver his father helped out by sending $50 a month.

A turning point for Sturm came while working as an IRS trial attorney in Kansas City, when construction mogul Peter Kiewit called and hired him away. Sturm helped the company excavate itself from a $35 million tax deficiency and turned the problem into a $5 million tax refund. At 31, he began a relationship with Kiewit which lasted 28 years and included stock gifts and purchases that (according to Forbes) enabled Sturm to walk away with $160 million when he left the company.

From there, he ventured into the banking industry, a road that led to ANB Bank.

“Coming from a construction background, I’ve encountered all kinds of people in different trades — people who worked together to complete our projects. There’s nothing better than teamwork,” said Sturm. “A lot of those people were not college graduates – they were self-trained or got a trade education.”

“That’s what I want to help people accomplish with the Mechatronics Mobile Learning Lab,” he said. “It’s an innovative idea and I love innovative things. This lab could change the lives of many people in rural areas of the state.”