Sam Weller hasn’t attended Dakota Wesleyan University in 99 years. But his legacy is making as large an impact as ever on the university.
The former Mitchell businessman, who died in 1978, and the foundation today that carries his name have been big DWU supporters. The university reciprocated its support last month when it presented him with a posthumous honorary doctorate degree.
A brief ceremony on May 27 at the offices of the ELO Accounting and Advisors in Mitchell featured DWU officials and members of the Sam F. Weller Family Foundation, presenting the foundation with a ceremonial diploma and a graduation shawl.
“To now be 99 years from that point where he was a student and to have a family and a foundation that recognizes the importance of education in our community and the future, I think it speaks highly to the family and the vision that their dad had, really being a founder of this community and leaving a legacy,” outgoing DWU President Amy Novak told the Mitchell Republic at the event.
Weller was born in 1901 and graduated from Mitchell High School in 1919. He attended DWU and played college football for two seasons and was a member of a university literary society and W Club. He was a junior when his career at DWU stopped.
“That’s not uncommon for that time, for the 1920s,” Novak said. “Oftentimes, it might be a case of not having the money or having the farm calling him home to work. But I think it’s clear he valued his education and passed that down to his family. And he did quite a bit in those two years on campus.”
Weller moved to California and married Edna Braase in 1927 and they moved back to Mitchell, where they raised two children and bought a home on Court Merrill Street, living across from the DWU campus for nearly 70 years.
Weller is remembered for being a devoted member of Mitchell community clubs: the Masonic Lodge, the Mitchell Shriners, the Elks Club, Lions Club, along with the community’s outdoors and sports booster clubs. Weller continued the family business started by his grandfather, Frank, in 1890 as a land and insurance company.
Weller donated money to the university to be used toward student scholarships and a memorial scholarship fund was established after his death to go toward funding educational opportunities at DWU.
More recently, the Weller Foundation also supported the university’s $1.2 million DWU Theatre facility, which opened in 2017. It also has contributed to the university’s new building for its School of Business, Innovation and Leadership, which is slated to open this fall on the southeast corner of campus.
“He’s a perfect example of someone who started working in agriculture and later grew his business to include insurance and a number of other outlets as a small business. And that’s what this facility is aiming to do as well,” Novak said. “The center itself is a celebration of what we think is the entrepreneurial spirit of the region and encouraging the next generation of business leaders to carry on that same spirit because that’s at the heart of who we are in Mitchell and in South Dakota.”
The 30,000-foot facility will include the DWU Institute for Rural Development, the Kelley Center for Entrepreneurship and the will have a tribute to women in Dakota Wesleyan history who have made a leadership impact. A dedication is planned for DWU’s Blue and White Days homecoming weekend in September.
As of July 1, 2020, the foundation has contributed more than $766,000 to nonprofit causes in the Mitchell area.
“(Sam) is making that impact in profound ways and DWU is fortunate to have been a beneficiary of that,” Novak said.
The foundation’s president, Dave Olson, said that the relationship between Mitchell and DWU is a “two-way street,” and that both work best when they are in cooperation with each other.
“That cooperation is what’s important,” he said. “We know what DWU means to this community. This is a project that fits the mission of our foundation and we’ve been proud to support the university. I know the Weller Family feels the same way.”
The board of directors for the foundation is made up of representatives appointed by ELO, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the Mitchell Area Charitable Foundation, the mayor of Mitchell and the Mitchell Jaycees.