They had no sons or daughters, but have nonetheless supported the dreams of thousands of sons and daughters in the region, all thanks to the wise stewardship over the past few decades of the Alva J. Field Memorial Trust.
Chief among these stewards has been Dan Baker of Williston, its managing trustee for 20 or so years, helping steer the fund to unprecedented prosperity.
The fund established in the 1950s by Alva J. Field’s wife, Maude, began with a 2,200-acre farm that amounted to about $48,000 in market value. In its first iteration, the fund awarded eight loans to worthy young men who had graduated from a Williams County High School, to help them go to college.
Today, largely under Baker’s guidance, the fund has grown to almost $17 million. It is no longer offering loans to worthy men. It’s also giving out scholarships now. Quite a lot of them. And to both men and women.
Baker is retiring as a trustee. His colleagues gathered around him Thursday night not only to salute his leadership and his efforts, but to reminisce with him about what the Alva J. Field Trust has become.
“When you look at how to connect all the dots of all the things that had to happen here to get to tonight, it is kind of amazing,” said Charles Neff, among those who gathered to honor Baker’s service.
The Fields had no children, Neff said, but they believed in the importance of a good education.
There wasn’t a community college at the time in Williston. The nearest school was Dickinson and Minot. A scholarship fund was needed, to help talented young men get to college.
“So they took their farmland and they put it into a trust,” Neff said. “They took the assets and savings after his widow died to start the Alva J. Field trust in the 1950s.”
There were to be three trustees on the board.
One had to be an Oddfellow, because Alva J. Field was an Oddfellow. Another had to be the superintendent of schools from District 1. And the third was to be a county commissioner from Williams County, specifically, the commissioner with the portfolio for social services.
In the beginning, the trust wasn’t giving away any scholarships. It gave out only loans at reduced interest rates.
Its first round of recipients numbered eight. Then there were 12. And by the end of the 1950s, 20 to 22.
Baker came on board as a trustee for the court-supervised Alva J. Field Trust sometime in 1993, board minutes show, Neff said, as the Oddfellow member.
He was soon selected to be head trustee by his peers.
At the time, the trust’s assets had grown to something like $1.3 million, Neff said. But Baker would take a series of steps that leveraged the boom to maximum effect.
These included development of the property’s mineral rights.
The tract today has about 20 oil wells pumping.
Its proximity to the bypass west of town was also an important opportunity that Baker took full advantage of.
“The trust under Dan Baker’s tutelage expanded its footing by a sum of $16 million and went through some very interesting times in trying to negotiate and get paid for easements for the bypass and develop its oil and gas minerals,” Neff said.
Meanwhile, as the fund was growing, so was the vision guiding it. Baker asked the court permission to expand to grant scholarships as well as loans, and eventually to expand its offerings to women, too.
Then he asked permission to give scholarships to non-college programs that teach lucrative trades, from beauty school to vocational programs in electricity, mining, and carpentry. Permission was also eventually granted to give scholarships for graduate degrees.
“This is not just a North Dakota deal,” Neff added. “I think there are very few schools we don’t send checks to.”
In about 2013 or so, a deal was worked out to underwrite a commitment to get federal matching funds from the government, further expanding the reach of the fund. The program was not only a North Dakota first, but was one of few like it in the nation.
“Dan’s kids — let’s call them Dan’s kids,” Neff said. “Dan has got 3,228 kids. That is a lot of child support. That is millions.”
Baker, for his part, noted that the trust has been something positive from the oil industry.
“And it was a lot of fun working with the oil companies,” he added. “It’s 19 or 20 wells that we have now. The ones that are closest to Williston are our best.”