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SOAR star retires after 51 years at UW-Madison

July 30, 2009 By Kiera Wiatrak

Student finances aren’t supposed to be funny. Wally Douma decided to change that.

Wally Douma gives a presentation on financial topics related to higher education to parents of incoming first-year students during a SOAR session on June 23, 2009.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Douma, director emeritus of the UW–Madison financial aid office, retired in 1994 after his 30-year tenure. But he has continued speaking to parents of incoming freshmen at Student Orientation, Advising and Registration (SOAR) about student finances for 15 summers after his official retirement.

Today (July 30) is his final presentation in a university career that spans 51 years of service. Prior to his time in financial aid, he served as a personnel director and a student activities adviser for the Memorial Union.

In 1964, Douma began to speak to SOAR parents once or twice a week on rotation with other staff. Once he retired, he took on the entire task himself.

“It’s been fun,” he says. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, but there comes a time.”

Douma’s SOAR session, titled “Taking Care of Business,” covers tuition, overall cost of attendance, the tuition billing system, student jobs, transportation, loans and scholarships, and what parents should tell their students about the cell phone bill and credit cards.

“That sounds dry as sawdust,” Douma says. “Let’s see if we can’t make this a little lighter, let’s see if we can’t put a little humor here.

And that’s exactly what he did.

“I love the names of the groups that your son or daughter are listening to,” Douma says when warning parents students might burn through their pockets when purchasing concert tickets. “Dashboard Confessional, Crash Test Dummies, Black Eyed Peas. The other group you might associate with is ‘Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.’ And here’s the one I think describes them all: ‘Ludicrous.'”

He adds that a group called “The Barenaked Ladies” sound particularly appealing. “They had a hit awhile ago called ‘If I had a Million Dollars,'” he says. “I thought that was just the thing for a financial aid man.”

While Douma may have the effect of pulling his jokes off the top of his head, former colleague and current director of the Office of Student Financial Aid Susan Fischer says a lot of research goes into both the financial content of the presentation each year as well as the humor.

“He goes through and finds all the bands that came last year,” she says. “He always has to throw in the Barenaked Ladies thing… Thankfully, people still know who Barenaked Ladies are.”

But one of Douma’s most effective uses of humor in his presentation is the anecdotes he’s collected during his 51 years on campus.

He quotes one student who doesn’t understand why her account is overdrawn: “I can’t possibly be overdrawn, I still have checks in my checkbook.”

Or the student who asked the financial aid office for help paying his cell phone bill, which in turn suggested he ask his parents. The student replied: “Well, I’d have to call mom and dad.”

But Fischer points out that the office isn’t all fun and games.

“We all have stories,” she says. “Some of them are real sad, some of them are kind of funny, and a lot of them are pretty joyous.”

She says the most rewarding experiences are when students in their last year come back to say, “I couldn’t have made it without you guys.”

Douma also points to these stories as the most memorable.

“I’m really just a bureaucrat, but it got me through the university,” he says.

But Douma didn’t just get through it. He helped put financial aid, which started in the early 1960s, on the map at UW–Madison and around the country.

“He’s been a leader in the profession since day one,” Fischer says, “not only in the state, which he has been, and on our campus, but on a regional and national level.”

Fischer, who Douma hired in the 1980s, adds that Douma is recognized nationally, and to this day Fischer’s colleagues still ask how he’s doing.

Douma’s SOAR speech, which began close to the birth of financial aid, has morphed along with it.

In 1964, Douma’s talk was much more specific and focused almost entirely on how to fill out financial aid forms.Now, his talk covers everything from tuition to talking to your students about budgeting to the social and financial advantages of student employment.

Douma says he hopes his audience gains “a confidence in their student that they can make decisions about money and make decisions about sharing information.”

“The biggest compliment I ever get is when a parent comes back and says you were right on with everything you said,” he adds.

This year’s SOAR parents, though not far enough along to know how right he will be, certainly seem to take his advice to heart.

“This was, out of anything, what I came here to hear,” says parent Patrick Hamilton from Lisle, Ill. “He answered all our questions. He was perfect.”

Joyce Gehrend of Madison also enjoyed the presentation. “I think he’s been the best presenter, he just made it very enjoyable and humorous,” she says. “He covered everything everybody needed to know.”