How a penniless orphan became a patron of the next generation

How a penniless orphan became a patron of the next generation

Richard Hoff '52 with his wife, Beverly, three daughters and seven of their grandchildren, in 2010.

Richard Hoff '52 with his wife, Beverly, three daughters and seven of their grandchildren, in 2010.

A stellar student and voracious reader, Henry Richard Hoff ’51 breezed through elementary and high school, graduating at age 16. He knew he wanted to go to college and become a medical doctor. Judging by his work ethic and his academic aptitude, all the signs were that he had the brightest of futures.

But instead, as his high school years drew to a rapid close, he was in a bind: Since age 5, when both of his parents died within one year, he had been living in the Wartburg orphanage in Mount Vernon, New York. High school graduation meant he had to leave the home, and he was completely on his own.

“I was in deep trouble,” he recalls, “no money, no job, no parents, or relatives who would be interested in me.”

Besides his academic talent, he had a dream: to go to Wagner College. Hoff had heard about it from a fellow Wartburg kid, Eugene Roth, who had graduated from Wagner in 1944, on his way to becoming a Lutheran minister.

Richard Hoff in the 1951 Kallista

Richard Hoff in the 1951 Kallista

With the help of a classmate’s family, Hoff got a temporary place to stay after his high school graduation — and a ride down to the College when he was asked to come in for an interview. Hoff explained his situation to Marguerite Hess, the remarkable Wagner registrar who helped untold numbers of alumni during her long tenure. On the spot, she offered him a full scholarship covering tuition, room, and board.

“I accepted with alacrity,” Hoff says with relish, recalling that life-changing moment of more than six decades ago.

He started at Wagner that fall and spent four happy, intense years of study here. “It exposed me to a different world,” he explains. “Especially because I got into an academic atmosphere, which was what I needed, I needed to be challenged, and that was a challenge. I’m grateful for that.”

He majored in chemistry and biology, basking in the attention and encouragement professors gave to such a dedicated student. And he achieved his goal: He was admitted to New York University’s medical school, and completed his MD in 1955. He interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and then opened his own practice in internal medicine in Westwood, New Jersey. He married Beverly Trefethen in 1955, and their 56 years of happy marriage (until Beverly’s passing in 2011) produced three daughters, eight grandchildren, and even one great-grandchild.

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For Dr. Hoff, Wagner College represented a treasure that he wanted to pass along to others, too. For example, to his daughter Patricia Hoff Dillon ’79, who came to the College in 1975, walked on to the basketball team, and became one of its biggest stars. But he also passed it along to other students, whom he doesn’t know, but felt moved to help achieve their dreams just as he achieved his. In 1992, just after retiring, he established the H. Richard Hoff, MD, Scholarship Fund at Wagner for pre-med students. The fund has already provided scholarships for 10 students; and now that it is fully endowed, the income earned from the fund will provide scholarships in perpetuity.

The first recipient was Robert Bolash ’03, who went on to earn a Fulbright Fellowship and spend a year in Germany studying public health, followed by an MD at the University of Miami medical school. He is now an interventional pain physician at the Spine & Pain Institute of New York.

Sandra Minchala looks at a glass of water with Professor Mohammad Alauddin.

Sandra Minchala '15, recipient of the Hoff Scholarship, studies water issues in Bangladesh with Professor Mohammad Alauddin.

The latest recipient is Sandra Minchala ’15, a chemistry major, whose family emigrated to the United States from Ecuador when she was nine years old. Her aspiration is to work in public health, helping to prevent environmental pollution that impacts human health. “It is my promise to you,” she wrote in a letter of thanks to Dr. Hoff, “that your contribution will go to building a better world tomorrow.”

As for Dr. Hoff, he’s still reading voraciously and leaving his books all around the house — a state of affairs that his daughter Lori cheerfully confirms, since he now lives with her and her family. “I had a happy and successful professional life, and I’m very grateful to Wagner for all they did for me,” he says.