Education

Bookkeeper tried to steal banker’s money. Now Fort Hays gets its largest gift: $20M

Earl and Nonie Field donated about $20 million to Fort Hays State University — the largest single gift in school history.
Earl and Nonie Field donated about $20 million to Fort Hays State University — the largest single gift in school history. Fort Hays State University

Fort Hays State University has announced its largest gift in school history — $20 million — about a month after a Kansas woman admitted to trying to steal the largest share of a deceased banker’s fortune.

The university in western Kansas announced the donation from the estate of Earl and Winona “Nonie” Field on Thursday.

Nonie died in 2009, and Earl in 2013. She had been a teacher, and he was a former banker. They were both alumni of Fort Hays State University. The Fields were childhood sweethearts, the school said, and were lifelong citizens of Hays. They had no children and bequeathed the vast majority of their estate to the public university.

“At the time of Earl’s passing, their estate gift to Fort Hays State University was valued at approximately $20 million,” said Jason Williby, president and CEO of the FHSU Foundation. “Their gift is unequivocally life-changing for our students, but it is also the largest single gift ever made to FHSU.”

“The Fields Estate gift will be counted toward FHSU’s Journey campaign and will support student scholarships in perpetuity for the areas of art, athletics and music.”

But it took nearly six years for the school to get the money after Earl Field’s part-time bookkeeper tried to steal some of his wealth for herself.

Wanda Oborny, a 66-year-old Hays woman, admitted in a federal court plea deal that she tried to defraud the school of money with a false codicil, or a modification to a will. According to federal and state court documents, Oborny likely typed the codicil and forged Field’s signature on it.

The fake change to the will would have given her half of Field’s estate, or about $10 million. One quarter would have gone to the banker’s lawyer, and the remaining quarter — about $5 million — to the university.

Federal prosecutors said Oborny pleaded guilty in March to one count of mail fraud. She had originally been charged with seven counts of mail fraud.

Sentencing is scheduled for May 29, but attorneys are recommending that she serve a year of probation. While they don’t recommend a fine, they do suggest that a judge order her to pay a $1,200 charitable donation to the university.

“It’s difficult to put into words the impact the Fields have had on the Hays community and Fort Hays State University,” said Curtis Hammeke, FHSU director of athletics. “Earl and Nonie loved this university and realized that scholarships were the lifeline for the future. They didn’t anticipate that tuition and educational costs would do anything but rise over the years, and they wanted to assist in providing scholarships that would keep pace.”

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