Fellowship Keeps Legacy of Humphrey School MPA Director Gary DeCramer Alive
Of all the fellowships available to students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, few have as personal a connection to the sponsor as the Gary DeCramer Memorial Fellowship, which is awarded each year to a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) student. It’s named in honor of DeCramer, the former director of the School’s MPA program who died suddenly in the spring of 2012 at age 67.
“Gary was a very special person,” said Jim Scheibel, a friend and former student of DeCramer’s. “He excited and encouraged people. He made everyone feel important. Everyone loved Gary.”
During his 10 years as head of the MPA program, which is designed for mid-career professionals who want to advance their skills in the public service sector, DeCramer became a well-known and loved figure and an adviser to countless students.
The Humphrey School established the fellowship shortly after DeCramer’s death to honor his passionate commitment to the School and to the education of public servants. In addition, the Gary DeCramer Public Leadership Award is given each year to an MPA student who displays exemplary leadership.
It’s important for DeCramer’s wife, Estelle Brouwer, to keep his legacy alive through the annual awards that bear his name. Estelle said DeCramer brought a strong spiritual and ethical component to the MPA program, and the award recipients are selected based on how they reflect those facets of DeCramer’s leadership style.
“The MPA program was Gary’s love, since he was a public servant himself,” said Estelle. “Mid-career students come back to school because they want to figure out what exactly they want to do next. They have a lot of passion trying to find out their new path.”
But handing out fellowships and awards in Gary’s name is not enough for Estelle. She wants those recipients to really know what her husband was like, so they can continue his legacy through their work.
She had a “brainstorm” a while ago and decided to bring the fellows and award recipients together for an evening, so “they can learn from each other about what they’ve been inspired to do because of Gary’s influence.”
Connecting with DeCramer's life and legacy
Estelle hosted a group of those awardees for dinner at her house last month, and the people around the table all spoke of their connections to Gary DeCramer.
Breanna Wheeler (MPA ’15) was the first recipient of the DeCramer Fellowship, and she said she feels a connection with him and Estelle because they all grew up in small rural Minnesota towns. Wheeler recently became director of the Riverbend Nature Center in Faribault.
“The fact that Gary put the MPA program together was important for me,” she said. “Having the DeCramer fellowship on my resume—people point that out because they know who Gary is. It’s been very helpful.”
The newest DeCramer Fellow, Laurie Harper (MPA ’17), is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota and works for the tribe. One of her responsibilities is to update the tribe’s education codes and policies. During her research on the topic, Harper came across the Minnesota American Indian Education Act of 1988—a law that Gary DeCramer sponsored and helped pass when he chaired an Indian education subcommittee in the state Senate.
“Gary traveled to every corner of the state to gather information and address those issues at that time, and I’m working on what’s happened since then,” Harper said. “The connection between us is bigger than us as individuals.”
This year’s recipient of the DeCramer Leadership Award, Comfort Dondo (MPA ’17), said she, too, feels a connection with Gary. Dondo is an immigrant from Zimbabwe, and is working toward creating culturally specific housing for domestic violence victims who are from Africa. She donated her award stipend to that project. “The award has connected me and given me confidence to pursue my goals,” she said.
Another award recipient, former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel (MPA ’14), noted that he’s received dozens of awards during his career, but the most meaningful to him is the one named for his friend, Gary DeCramer.
"It’s special because of who Gary was and what he stood for—the common good. Gary embodied that,” said Scheibel. “He encouraged students not just to learn, but to do. He would tell his students, ‘you are the common good. You have to go out and be the leaders.’ "
Looking around the dinner table that night, Estelle Brouwer was struck by how her guests, who have such different backgrounds and interests, are all connected to her husband.
“Gary was eclectic. His interests were broad and deep, and you’re all here to find ways to connect with his life and legacy,” she told them. “He would have loved each one of you as human beings, but also what you want to do in the world. I feel so honored to know all of you.”
This is the second year that Estelle has hosted this dinner to honor the DeCramer Fellows and Leaders. But she intends to make it an annual tradition, so that even those who never knew him personally will keep his legacy alive.
“It’s part of my grieving process. It’s an important part of looking forward,” Estelle said. “Gary died too soon. He had more work to do. He had more to give. This is a part of doing that.”
(You can learn about the Gary DeCramer Memorial Fund here)