Chance Encounter

How helping a couple on a train led Wilfried Prewo ’70 to Grinnell
Luke Saunders

It started with strangers on a train — very seldom does one get to say that anymore. The year was 1964, and it was this chance encounter that led to Wilfried Prewo ’70’s Grinnell experience, which changed his life and made his recent and future gifts to the College possible.

Bill and Jean Cramer — a couple from Overland Park, Kan., with no real connection to Grinnell — found themselves on the wrong train after visiting a friend in Germany. Prewo, a teenager then, helped them find their way to a train that would take them to Paris, their intended destination. They exchanged contact information, but it seemed unlikely their paths would cross again.

In the next few years, Prewo completed high school and his compulsory military service in Germany and began studying economics at the University of Frankfurt. He daily found himself in lecture halls filled with as many as 800 students. A small class had 300.

In the summer of 1969, Prewo was in the United States and because he had corresponded with the Cramers since they first met, he decided to take them up on their invitation. While visiting he told them about his university experience, his dissatisfaction with the school’s student-faculty ratio of 100:1, and the lack of access to professors.

He also told them about his interest in Grinnell, which he had first learned about through an economics textbook by then-Grinnell professor Robert Haveman. Jean immediately suggested they visit the campus, and they soon made the four-hour drive, where Prewo was given a full tuition scholarship and allowed to enter as a senior.

As excited as he was at the prospect of coming to Grinnell, Prewo didn’t have the $1,000 he needed for room and board for the 1969–70 academic year. The Cramers, even though they had five children of their own, offered Prewo the money as a gift. He hadn’t even asked.

Prewo’s experience at Grinnell was a profound one. The culture was vastly different from that of his university in Germany. “I never knew an academic experience like Grinnell existed,” he says. “It was like the garden of Eden and nirvana.” Before coming to Grinnell, he had never seen an open-stack library. At his former university, “you could sit there and listen, but the learning was limited because there was no back and forth,” he says. At Grinnell, he says, “I could learn so easily.” After one year at Grinnell, he graduated and pursued a Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University.

In the years since he received his doctorate, Prewo taught at the University of Texas at Austin and then returned to Germany. In 1985 he became chief executive of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Hannover. He held that position until he retired in 2012.

Prewo could teach a master class on ways to give. Ever the economist, he chose the three modes that made the most sense for his financial situation: a bequest from an existing family trust, a gift of stock to establish a charitable remainder unitrust managed by Grinnell College, and a cash gift. The bequest and the cash gift will establish a pair of scholarships, one honoring the Cramers and the other honoring his parents. He chose to honor his parents because of the importance they placed on education. He honors the Cramers because they recognized the value of the education he was offered and generously removed the financial obstacle that stood in his way.

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