For Leonard Roth, philanthropy is not just a way to stay connected to Illinois State. It’s become his personal mission.

In 2016 Roth created the Roth Family Scholarship in support of Illinois State University’s $150 million comprehensive campaign, Redbirds Rising. Roth’s scholarship was funded through direct gifts and distributions from his IRA under the charitable rollover provision. Roth’s contributions of over $200,000 support undergraduate students in the College of Education.

Marilyn Roth shared with Leonard her desire to support education. “We can give to ISU, and I’m going to start.”

The Roth Family Scholarship honors a long legacy of education at Illinois State that began with his mother-in-law, Clara (Schupbach) Kaufman, who graduated from Illinois State Normal University with a teaching degree in 1932. Thirty years later, in 1962, Leonard’s wife, Marilyn (Kaufman) Roth, received an elementary education degree at Illinois State. And nearly 30 years after that, Leonard and Marilyn’s daughter, Cathy Roth, received a bachelor’s in public relations in 1990, and a master’s in communication in 1992.

Leonard and Marilyn began supporting Illinois State 35 years ago, after a conversation at breakfast. Marilyn, who had taught fifth grade in two school districts and helped start the local preschool, had a passion for helping students and teachers. During the conversation, Marilyn shared with Leonard her desire to support education. “We can give to ISU, and I’m going to start.”

A perfect union

Leonard and Marilyn met in 1960 while Leonard completed his Air Force training at Chanute Air Force Base near Champaign, and Marilyn was an elementary education student at Illinois State. Marilyn’s uncle, whom Leonard knew personally, told Leonard, “I know where there’s a very nice lady who would make you a good wife and a mother of your children.”

At 22, Leonard wasn’t yet focused on marriage and was about to begin his four-year commitment to the Air Force, but he decided to ask Marilyn out anyway, and the two dated for the next four years. When it came time to get engaged, Marilyn was adamant about waiting to be married so she could finish her degree.

“Some of her classmates were getting married,” says Roth of the decision to wait to get married. “She said, ‘I’m going to get my degree and I’m going to teach. And you’re in the Air Force, so I know where you’re going to be.’”

Leonard and Marilyn wed in 1964 after he completed his time in the Air Force and she graduated from Illinois State. After marrying, Leonard began farming his family’s land at the request of his father.

“When I got out of the service, my father asked me, ‘Would you come home and try farming?’” Leonard said. “I said I would give him five years, and if it’s not successful, then I’m gone. But I gave him five years.”

Roth was entertaining other job offers at the time—one in Tampa, Florida, and the other in St. Louis—but Marilyn was in favor of staying in Illinois, where she could use her Illinois teaching license. Marilyn said to Leonard, “Why don’t we just try that farming thing?”

That farming thing was successful after all. The couple stayed on Leonard’s parents’ farm, and had two children: a son, Doug, and a daughter, Cathy.

Dedicated to helping others

Early in their marriage, the couple began investing in the stock market and saving for retirement. The perfect complement to Leonard, Marilyn always set a portion of the family’s budget aside for investing and ensured they were able to give to others.

It was only after Marilyn passed away in June 2014 that giving to Illinois State became personal for Leonard.

“I have always told people that a college education will never guarantee you a job. But a college education will never keep you from getting a job.”—Leonard Roth

“The February after Marilyn died, I was invited to the Loyalty Circle reception at ISU and so I came down. And the next year, I came again. On the table at the reception, they had a flyer on how you can convert an IRA tax-free. I didn’t throw the flyer away; instead, I took it home, and I started looking at it,” said Roth.

With his daughter’s support, Leonard used funds from his late wife’s IRA to create the Roth Family Scholarship. Through the scholarship, he hopes to instill in current students the same belief in education that the couple instilled in their own children.

“We wanted our children to focus on their education,” says Leonard.

The couple’s daughter, Cathy, is a learning director for State Farm Insurance. The couple’s son, Doug, passed away in 2015, was a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and worked for over 20 years in research and development at Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly and Co. Ltd.

“I have always told people that a college education will never guarantee you a job. But a college education will never keep you from getting a job,” says Leonard. “There comes a time when you have to develop a maturity.”

Proud moments

Since establishing the Roth Family Scholarship, Leonard has had the chance to meet two of his scholarship recipients, education majors Jessica Ley and Jonathan Choe. Leonard also received a letter of gratitude from the third recipient, Gabriella Frigo, who was unable to attend the scholarship ceremony, because of student teaching commitments.

“When I saw those two students walk across stage at the scholarship awards ceremony, I had the same feeling as when my own children graduated from college or from high school. Just proud of them,” said Leonard.

Providing for the future

But Leonard isn’t done yet. He plans to continue his scholarship at Illinois State.

“What kind of legacy will I leave?” asked Roth. “I am grateful the scholarship will continue to grow and help students after I’m gone. If I’m lucky enough to live as long as my mother—she died at 96—I’d like to have a list of all the students that I’ve helped go through ISU. And that started last year, with the first three scholarship recipients.”

When asked how he thinks Marilyn would feel about his philanthropy, Leonard smiles and says, “She would love it. I mean, she would love it because she was that kind of person. She just gave.”

Leonard Roth joins more than 46,000 donors who have contributed to scholarship, leadership, and innovation at Illinois State. Contributions from donors like Leonard have brought Illinois State University closer to meeting its $150 million comprehensive goal for Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State. You, too, can change lives by giving to Illinois State’s students, programs, facilities, and faculty. To give today, visit

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