Paying it Forward

Merritt “Ritt” Conroy ’60 and Jean Lorraine White Conroy ’57, ’60G

Through their own life experiences, Jean and Ritt Conroy knew there were UMaine students who could ust a helping hand. They decided to “pay it forward” by providing support for future UMaine students by creating two scholarships.

Ritt and Jean met each other at the University of Maine. Ritt took a shine to Jean and would arrive at his class early so he could greet Jean as she was leaving that classroom. Between school years, they started dating when both of them happened to have a summer job at the same insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut.

They married in July, 1961.

Their First Scholarship: The Maine Vocational Rehabilitation Thank You Scholarship Fund

Ritt grew up on a farm in Aroostook County and attended Washburn Academy. Farming was not in Ritt’s plans. He dreamed of leaving the farm and going to the University of Maine. In his senior year of high school, Ritt contracted tuberculosis. He was incapacitated by that disease for three years. To make matters worse, during that time, his father passed away.

Ritt’s dreams of going to college were not over. Witht he help of the Maine Division of Vocational Rehanilitation and support from the Helen B. Hemingway Scholarship, part of UMaine’s privately funded scholarship program, Ritt was able to attend UMaine. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education in 1960, earning membership in the Kappa Delta Pi Honors Society each year. Ritt went on to become a computer systems analyst. He spent much of his career at the University of California Irvine where he relished improving the sustems used by students and faculty there.

In 2007, Ritt and Jean created the Maine Vocational Rehabilitation Thank You Scholarship Fund to help UMaine students with disabilities, with a preference for those students participating in Maine Vocational Rehabilitation Division programs. After Ritt’s death in 2017, Jean included this scholarship fund in her estate plans.

This scholarship has touched the lives of many UMaine students. One recipient said that getting this award made it possible “to believe more in himself.” He said he was “grateful that there are people like [the Conroys] who help out other people in need” and that he hopes to be able to help others in the future.

Sara Henry, Director of UMaine Student Accessibility Services, said:

The staff and students at Student Accessibility Services are grateful for Jean and Ritt Conroy and the Maine Vocational Rehabilitation Thank You Scholarship which will continue for many years to come. The scholarship funds that have been awarded to students with disabilities over the years have helped them to get their education and affirmed the University’s commitment to access for students with disabilities.

Jean Creates a Second Scholarship Fund: The Merritt and Jean Conroy Fund

Jean’s own life path led her to create a second scholarship to help UMaine students – this time with a different focus. Jean grew up in Bangor, Maine in a family with deep UMaine connections. Her dad, James F. White, attended the University of Maine in the late 1920’s and was awarded the Block “M” award for his exceptional service to UMaine as an alum. Her brother, Leigh J. White ‘70, also attended UMaine.

While a student, Jean was an active Black Bear. She was a sister in Phi Mu, served as an editor of the Prism yearbook, and joined Future Teachers of America, Math Club, and German Club. She was also invited to join Phi Beta Kappa her senior year. At UMaine, Jean earned her Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics in 1957 and went on to obtain her Master of Arts in Mathematics in 1960. Jean was the only female graduating with an advanced degree in Math in 1960. Indeed, she appears to have been one of only four women in UMaine history, prior to 1961, who had graduated with an advanced degree in mathematics.

Jean went to California and continued to be a trailblazer. She was the first woman to receive tenure in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at California State University, Long Beach. She later moved into administration where she served as the University’s Coordinator for Single Subject Teacher Education Program. Jean also served on various committees including as a member and chair of the Board of Institution Reviewers for the State of California Credentialing Commission. Jean later wrote that it was the “[t]he great education I received at UM that opened doors for me to have many important professional experiences.”

In her role preparing future secondary teachers, Jean learned about some of the financial difficulties faced by students during their student-teaching experiences. She understood that the rigors of student teaching made it difficult to hold another job so students often forego outside, paid work. In addition Jean knew that student expenses are often increased during this time: Students may incur additional costs of commuting to their assigned school or, if too far to commute, then for additional room and board nearer to their school.

When it came time to work on her estate plans, Jean decided that, in addition to her support for students through the Maine Vocational Rehabilitation Thank You Scholarship, she also wanted to help UMaine students studying to be secondary level math teachers, especially while they are student teaching. To accomplish this, she worked with staff at the UMaine Foundation to create a new scholarship: the Merritt and Jean Conroy Fund. She then worked with her attorney to include a bequest to both scholarship funds in her trust.

Unfortunately, Jean passed away in January 2020; but her legacy of kindness will help generations of future math teachers.

“The college is grateful for the support provided by Jean Conroy through the Merritt and Jean Conroy Fund,” said Mary H. Gresham, interim dean of the College of Education and Human Development. “Mathematics literacy is essential in the world today, and this contribution will help encourage more teachers in this area,” Gresham added. “In addition, the student-teaching experience is an important part of training new teachers, but it can be financially challenging. This gift will touch the lives, not only of UMaine’s future math teachers, but also their students’ lives.”

Paying It Forward

Jean and Ritt were grateful for the support they had received and believed that extending a helping hand to those who followed was a way of paying it forward. The permanently endowed funds that they created at the University of Maine Foundation will do just that for many students to come.