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Alumna gives $1 million to Great Conversation program

By Kari VanDerVeen
November 29, 2011

Until recently, Karen Buchwald Wright '74 had never even heard of St. Olaf College's Great Conversation program.

But then she sat down for lunch with President David R. Anderson '74, who suggested that the program — a sequence of five rigorous courses that traces the development of literary and artistic expression, philosophic thought, religious belief, and historical reflections on Western culture into the modern world — might interest her.

It did. So much so that Wright provided the college with a $1 million gift to establish the Karen Buchwald Wright '74 Endowment for the Support of the Great Conversation. The spendable portion of the endowment's annual earnings will be doubled through the Strategic Initiative Match, a St. Olaf Board of Regents program that provides matching funds for certain gifts above $50,000 that support the college's strategic plan.

Wright hopes her gift will not only help maintain the strength of the Great Conversation, but will lead to the creative expansion of the program. She wants to ensure that current and future generations of students have a solid understanding of the events and philosophies that have shaped Western civilization and, more specifically, the United States. "The philosophies that inform the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the fruit of a very long chain of events that I think the Great Conversation does a good job of examining," she says.

The Great Conversation wasn't yet established while Wright was a student at St. Olaf, but she developed her own wildlife research major through the Paracollege, a since-discontinued program that focused on individual study. She took a lot of biology and psychology courses, graduating in just two-and-a-half years with the goal, she says, of becoming "a Jane Goodall."

Instead she worked for several companies in Minneapolis before returning to Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1980 to work for the company her parents established. While raising four sons, Wright rose through the ranks at Ariel Corporation, which designs and manufactures natural gas compressors, and eventually took over as CEO and president in 2001.

Several years ago she created the Ariel Foundation, an organization focused on enhancing the quality of life in Mount Vernon by supporting education, parks, and the arts. She's also involved with a number of other nonprofit organizations, including serving on the advisory board to the association that operates George Washington's plantation estate in northern Virginia, named Mount Vernon.

"I'm kind of in the mode of saying 'I'm really lucky; I'm the second generation to lead a successful business, and I've been able to take it to the next level, and it's the right thing to do to give back and make it possible for other people to have these opportunities,'" Wright says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or