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'His legacy will live on': Immanuel Wilk gifts Fargo-Moorhead nearly $500,000

Dr. Immanuel Wilk was a wine lover. He's seen here enjoying wine on his 95th birthday with friends and relatives. Special to The Forum1 / 2
Dr. Immanuel Wilk came to Fargo in 1939 to escape the Nazis. He died and left a half million dollars to the FM Area Foundation. Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — On June 8, 1939, Fargo-Moorhead was abuzz with talk of the visit of Norway's Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha. According to newspaper reports of the time, the royal couple was "highly celebrated" as they toured Concordia College and visited with local dignitaries.

Less than one month earlier, another young European man came to town under much different circumstances. He was fleeing the Nazis, leaving his parents behind and hoping to start a new life in a place where he knew almost no one. There were no crowds to welcome him, no pomp and circumstance, but it would be him who, 80 years later, would leave a legacy fit for a king.

That former refugee, Dr. Immanuel Wilk, has gifted Fargo-Moorhead close to a half million dollars.

"Dr. Wilk was a wonderful and kind human being and a longtime friend of the Foundation," says Tim Beaton, executive director of the FM Area Foundation, the organization that will administer Wilk's fortune.

Following Wilk's 2017 death at his California home at the age of 97, the foundation established three new legacy funds: the Immanuel Kant Endowment Fund I, Immanuel Kant Endowment Fund II and the Immanuel Kant Music Fund. These funds, which were established in April through Wilk's revocable living trust, will benefit Fargo's Temple Beth El endowment fund, as well as graduate students in the chemistry departments at North Dakota State University and the University of California Los Angeles and the music departments at NDSU, UCLA and Northwestern University.

Who was he?

By all accounts, Wilk had a happy childhood growing up in Gerlitz, Germany, in the 1920s. However, by the age of 13, the Nazis had come to power, and the Wilk family decided to escape to Memel, Lithuania.

Six years later, the situation worsened as the Nazis were preparing to annex Memel. According to Wilk's obituary, his father "realized there was no future there for a Jewish boy." So the couple appealed for help from their relatives living in Fargo, Herman and Henrietta Wilk, who eventually agreed to sponsor the boy's move to the United States.

He arrived at their home in May of 1939. Six days later, Memel fell to the Germans. His parents, who stayed back, were eventually murdered in the Holocaust.

Upon arriving in Fargo, Wilk enrolled at NDSU and earned a B.S. in Chemistry in 1942. After graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in the 103rd Infantry Division, Signal Company. After the war, Wilk pursued chemistry graduate work at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill, as well as UCLA.

A storied career in industry and academia took him around the world, but he never forgot his first American home in Fargo.

"Perhaps his greatest strength was his capacity for sustained friendship," says Patty Mastel, FM Area Foundation's director of finance. "The neighbors he met in Fargo remained lifelong friends."

Mastel being one of them.

"Dr. Wilk and I developed a friendship that started from our shared love and appreciation of wine, and our emails almost always included a recommendation or two about a specific wine we may have recently enjoyed," Mastel says.

But she says Wilk would also always ask about her husband, kids and grandkids as well as a friend of his in failing health.

"It's a pretty clear testament to the fact that his personal relationships were important to him," Mastel says.

A legacy

An avid reader, even in his 90s, Wilk still walked to the local library to check all the national newspapers. He enjoyed reading Goethe in his native German and was a music lover, including Gilbert and Sullivan and jazz musicians Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli who reminded him of his days in Paris after the war.

Wilk died Aug. 14, 2017, at his home in Menlo Park, Calif. He was laid to rest with full military honors in Fargo, next to the graves of the relatives who took him in.

He never married or had children, but elected to give his fortune to benefit young people and those of the Jewish faith. He chose to give $110,000 to Temple Beth El's Aleph Fund, which supports the presence of a rabbi in Fargo, $50,000 to NDSU and $50,000 to UCLA for graduate student public service awards in the chemistry departments and $400,000 to the music departments at NDSU, Northwestern and UCLA.

"Perhaps it was the caring and generosity of people who helped him early in his life that inspired his desire to give back," Beaton says. "Perhaps it was simply his nature. Whatever the reason, his legacy will live on."

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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