DARBY – It’s been almost 10 years since the day Darby School Superintendent Loyd Rennaker received his first phone call from Archie Lorentzen.
A 1949 Darby High School graduate, Lorentzen called to let Rennaker know that when he died, he planned to leave a substantial amount of money to the school.
“At the time, I thought it sounded like it was too good to be true,” Rennaker said.
On Wednesday, Rennaker announced that Archie and Sue Lorentzen have donated an estimated $3 million to the Darby School District.
The couple passed away of natural causes – following 33 years of being in love – within four days of each other in December.
The Lorentzens had established a trust to be liquidated upon their death, with 75 percent donated to the Darby School District and 25 percent to the Air Warrior Courage Foundation, a national group that assists war veterans and their dependents.
After graduating from Darby High School, Lorentzen enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a musician playing bagpipes. Once in the service, he took the pilot aptitude test and scored so high that the Air Force waived its college degree requirement and allowed him to learn to fly.
Lorentzen went on to fly 129 combat missions in Vietnam, where he earned numerous citations.
“Archie credited the Darby School District for his Air Force flying career,” said Duncan Scott, the Kalispell attorney for the Lorentzen trust. “He said the school provided an excellent education that allowed him to surpass college graduates.”
Lorentzen’s mother, Veryl Lorentzen, taught in Darby. She retired in 1969.
Rennaker’s sister was one of her students.
“There are a lot of people in Darby who remember the Lorentzens,” Rennaker said.
Lorentzen was born on a cattle ranch near Hinsdale and then raised in the Bitterroot Valley. His wife, Sue, was born in Oklahoma. She was one of five children. Her father worked in the oil patch.
They met at Sue’s aunt’s house in Texas, where Archie was installing a heater. It was the beginning of a three-decade-long romance that ended on Dec. 9 when Sue died at the age of 82. Archie died four days later. He was 83.
In their trust, the couple set no stipulations on how the Darby School District was to use their money.
“We are thrilled,” Rennaker said. “We are not aware of any other Montana high school with a graduate as generous as Archie. We want to use the money to enhance our infrastructure, educational programming and achieve our goal of becoming a destination school in the Bitterroot Valley.”
Rennaker has established a committee that just started looking at all the possibilities.
At this point, it appears the money will likely be placed in an endowment, with the interest being used to benefit the school.
The district may look at ways to improve its technological offerings in order to provide students the skills they need to fit into the future workforce. Rennaker thinks there could also be an effort to look for ways the school could help the community attract people with the ability to work from their homes over the Internet.
Rennaker said the attorney for the trust thought that would please the Lorentzens.
“He told us that Archie would have loved it if his gift benefited both the town and the schools through creating new partnerships,” Rennaker said. “This whole thing is really special. I still have a hard time believing it’s true.”
Lorentzen made his fortune in California, where he and a few friends from the military went into business selling manufactured homes.
The trust has already made donations to the school.
The Darby School’s Excellence Fund annual benefit auction is Saturday. The auction raises money to enhance educational opportunities for all Darby students.
The Lorentzen trust donated two bronze sculptures for the auction: a CM Russell recast called “Changing Outfits,” and a Remington recast called “Rattlesnake.” A third bronze, a Heikka called “Bear Chasing Horse and Rider,” will be placed in the high school library to memorialize Archie Lorentzen.
Most of the remaining assets of the trust are in Flathead Valley real estate, which is being sold. Scott said the liquidation process is expected to be complete by the end of 2016.
Scott estimated the school district will receive about $3 million and the Air Warriors Courage Foundation will receive about $1 million. To date, the trust has donated $1.2 million to both entities.