The early years of The WATDA Foundation

On November 13, 1990, WATDA Chairman Ron Palmen died of a heart attack while attending an Oldsmobile advertising meeting in California.

As a former high school math teacher, Ron was dedicated to the WATDA Tech Project to improve the image of service technicians (back then a little-known title for this branch of our industry), and to get top quality students into the trade. “The scholarship program was being planned as a cornerstone of the project,” said Jerry Long, late owner of the former Bloedel’s Chrysler-Ripon and Chairman of the WATDA Board during this era. “This was Ron’s baby and we wanted to do it in his name.”

Palmen’s wife, Kathy, told Jerry at the memorial service that the scholarship fund proposed by him and WATDA was a turning point for her.  In Jerry’s words, “Kathy said now his death will have some meaning.”

The scholarship was off the ground, but WATDA President Gary Williams had a bigger vision for the dealer members in Wisconsin. Ten years earlier, he had envisioned a charitable foundation to help shelter funds of the WATDA Insurance Trust, but now he saw a clearer picture of the possibilities and needed member feedback.

On March 25, 1991 Gary organized a group of volunteer dealer leaders of the Association consisting of past and present members who met with then WATDA Chairman Jerry Long in Naples, Florida to discuss the benefits of forming an educational and charitable foundation for the Association. They were Lee Markquart, John Zimbrick, Dan Cloud, Gordie Boucher, Bill Boettcher, Les Eversole, Jack Fagan and Ken Kimport. Les chaired the committee and in December, 1991 The Foundation of the Wisconsin Automobile & Truck Dealers articles of incorporation and bylaws were created.

It took another year before Gary, Les, Lee and their team raised $300,000 for start-up funds for researching the level of participation and potential programs of The Foundation. Growth Design Corporation was hired by the Foundation Board of Directors to do just this.

At the suggestion of board member and major donor, Loraine Schuffler, President of the Glenn and Gertrude Humphrey Foundation, Ray Pedersen was hired as The Foundation’s first Executive Director in 1994.

In its infancy, the Foundation of the Wisconsin Automobile and Truck Dealers Association had one central program – scholarships for transportation service technicians. Today’s programming includes technical and marketing scholarships, educational services that positively impact schools and teachers throughout Wisconsin, donor-advised funds that benefit our industry and the communities that we serve and the dealer challenge grant program that has garnered nearly a quarter million dollars in support for non-profit programs throughout Wisconsin.