For 106 years, Stonington-based Atwood fund has helped students further their education and training
Stonington ― In 1916, Eugene Atwood, an inventor, businessman and owner of the Atwood Machine Company, started a philanthropic organization with $100,000 of his own money, to provide interest-free loans to college-bound students.
Though the company was sold in 1945, and the borough factory has since been replaced with the Stonington Commons condominiums and the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club, his legacy endures today in the Eugene Atwood Fund.
The organization continues to fulfill its mission, as stated by Atwood in 1916, "to aid deserving industrious young people, who are making an honest effort to accomplish the best results in life,” by offering interest-free loans to students heading to college or trade schools as well as awards ranging from $250 to $5,000 to high school seniors in New London County.
Atwood’s great, great granddaughter, Erica Lindberg Gourd, the managing trustee of the fund, described Atwood as “the son of a little bit kooky bicycle mechanic,” and explained that the idea of an obligation to the community and philanthropic works, were of great importance to him.
She said that throughout the generations, the family, somewhat ironically, stressed the importance of an old French concept known as noblesse oblige—the social obligations of the nobility.
Gourd explained the concept as “to whom much has been given, much is expected,” and, in plainer terms, “you don’t just buy a big house in Watch Hill and then a boat with three motors. You have enough, and you share.”
She said the irony is the “the Atwoods were not nobility at all—they were bike mechanics. They were bike mechanics who turned their knowledge of machinery into something that generated revenue.”
In fact, their knowledge of bicycles, helped them develop a self-centering spindle which revolutionized thread making and eventually resulted in the Atwood Machine Company producing the majority of the world’s machines that made silk thread. This allowed the family to pursue its philanthropic goals.
Fund Director Stacey Haskell added that Atwood’s wife gave Stonington the land that Town Hall now sits on, and the family also donated the founding $90,000 for Westerly Hospital.
Today, the fund serves the community in three ways-- interest-free loans, awards, and philanthropic giving.
The interest-free loans are available to students entering college, and, two years ago, the organization reinstituted loans to students entering a trade or tech school, as well as students in certification or licensing programs.
“We reestablished the trade and tech committee in 2020 because we started to really look at the direction our world is going in. Not every student needs to go to a brick and mortar college. We need these tradespeople to continue on into the future,” explained Haskell.
Wes Dawley, who leads the Tech and Trade Committee at the Atwood Fund, said that the trades are seeing a decline in younger workers, and, using himself as an example, explained that as he is getting older, there is no one to replace him in the construction industry he has been a part of for more than 30 years.
“We need those specialty skills—the plumbers, the electricians, the carpenters,” he said.
“We want to make sure that people know that we are here, not just for people who need an interest-free loan for college, but for someone who might need just to get a license or a certification,” Haskell added.
By offering loans rather than grants, the organization is able to repeatedly loan the money out when it is repaid, and students are able to avoid the added costs of interest in repayment.
“Because we make loans, when we get a donation of, say, $10,000, we may loan that out ten times,” Gourd said, adding, “the benefit of loaning the money back out is that we’ve reutilized it, so, in effect, we’ve been able to give away $5 million.”
“It’s the only reason we’re still here 106 years later,” she said.
Two award programs are available for high school seniors from New London County. The Eugene Atwood Award for academic excellence, and the Eugene Atwood Innovation Award, which helps students pursuing a career in a trade purchase required tools or equipment, are given yearly to students nominated by their high school principal. The students are required to also write an essay.
Available funding varies from year to year, but Haskell said the organization gave out $100,000 in interest- free loans, and an additional $22,000 for the Eugene Atwood Award and $14,000 for the Innovation Award in 2022.
When funds are available, the organization also participates in philanthropic giving. In recent years, recipients have included Connecticut College for students enrolling in bookkeeping and accounting programs, Norwich and New London Adult Education, and $10,000 awards to both Norwich Technical High School and Ella T. Grasso Technical High School for the purchase of tools/equipment for student use in the classroom.
Individuals are encouraged to apply for loans and awards online at https://www.eugeneatwoodfund.org/.
Editor’s Note: This version corrects the year of funding to 2022.