A Generous Family

A Portrait of Jean and Phil Formo
Jean and Phil Formo

“Go west, young man!” was the mantra guiding the young Philip Formo in his college selection. But after graduating from Pacific Lutheran University in 1968, he must have heeded a different axiom: “Yes, you can go home again.” Home again he came, not only to finish a special education degree at St. Cloud State University and a divinity degree at Luther Seminary, but also to pick up the Formo family legacy where it left off—at Augsburg.

Now a retired ELCA pastor, Phil, his wife, Jean, and their niece, Dawn, are the primary Formo forces behind not one, not two, but three separate scholarships honoring various family members and extending generosity to future Augsburg students.

“I was the first person on both sides of the family not to go to Augsburg,” says Phil. “My mother met my father in chemistry class there. She was in nursing and needed help, and he was good in chemistry. They also both sang in the first Augsburg choir concert that ever took place, after the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus merged.” His parents, Jerome and Winifred, both ’37, were extremely dedicated to Augsburg and stayed deeply involved in all things Auggie throughout their lifetimes. Jerome received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 1983 and was also a Regent Emeritus.

In 2009, Phil designated proceeds from their estate to establish the Jerome and Winifred Formo Scholarship for music majors or those with a strong interest in choral music directing. Seven students have already benefited from this fund, but it was not the first Formo scholarship. That distinction belongs to the David J. Formo Scholarship, which was established in 1979 and is awarded annually to a junior or senior student who has successfully overcome adversity to achieve academic and extracurricular excellence.

“My brother David graduated from Augsburg in 1964 and became a U.S. Navy commander whose plane went down in the Mediterranean Sea on November 3, 1979, the same day that Iran took U.S. captives. Before that, he had delivered to the Shah of Iran the gift of a new jet. It’s really a small world,” mused Phil.

The scholarship to honor his brother was the first for the Formo family, but not the last. When Phil retired in 2011, he decided to write a book about his maternal grandfather, Andreas Helland, who immigrated from Norway in 1889, attended Augsburg Seminary, and served there as New Testament professor for 35 years. “He was also very involved in fundraising. In those days you did everything, and he was really good at stewardship. One of his daughters, Beatrice, married Norman Anderson, who was the fundraiser for the first science building at Augsburg, and they were all there for the groundbreaking. My grandfather was the first to give a major gift,” Phil recalls.

Proceeds from Phil’s book, Papa—A Life Remembered, along with contributions from his own family and his parents’ estate, fund the Andreas Helland Scholarship, established In 2012 for students with financial need and academic achievement. “Education is so important, but we all know how expensive college is,” Phil says. “If students can get through in four years instead of five or six, they will have saved the equivalent of two years’ salary.”

Phil is sold not only on the value of affordable education, but also on the value of Augsburg. “I’ve always been amazed by what Augsburg, long known as a conservative Lutheran school, has become. What they are today is just awe-inspiring—their involvement in the community and openness to everyone is incredible. Culturally, they have really been able to reach out, to take minorities seriously,” he says. “For the only ELCA college in the city, what a unique opportunity.”