WPI Gave Flight to a Remarkable Life

Retired military pilot Henry Poplawski ’39, who will give the Institute a planned gift of $7.8 million for scholarships, says WPI got him on the right path

Henry R. Poplawski, a Worcester native who was forced to drop out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) more than seven decades ago due to financial hardship, has committed $7.8 million through a planned gift for student scholarships at WPI, representing one of the largest gifts the university has ever received.

The gift by Mr. Poplawski, 98, who attended WPI in the mid-1930s, shows the generosity of a remarkable man who eventually completed his studies on the West Coast before embarking on an impressive career as a pilot, test pilot, and aeronautical engineer.

Mr. Poplawski’s gift to the university represents heartfelt thanks for giving him the start he needed as a young adult.

“I owe WPI a lot,” said Mr. Poplawski, who now lives in Dayton, Ohio, and was a member of the Class of 1939. “WPI got me on the right path. I probably wouldn’t have gone to college otherwise. I had no money to complete my studies, so I want to help others continue theirs.”

The gift will support scholarships for WPI undergraduates with financial need. Through WPI’s $200 million fundraising effort, “if…The Campaign to Advance WPI,” the university seeks to raise $75 million for student scholarships, making it possible for more qualified and deserving students to earn a WPI degree.

With Mr. Poplawski’s gift, WPI has raised approximately $53 million toward that goal, and a total of more than $137 million toward the overall $200 million goal. The campaign also seeks funding to support faculty and academic programs, campus life and facilities, and unrestricted annual support.

For Mr. Poplawski, the gift is a reminder of the impact WPI had on his early years and his way of giving back to help those students in need. “I don’t want anyone else to have to leave school because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Mr. Poplawski’s generous gift will be celebrated on April 3 at WPI’s annual Scholarship Dinner, which recognizes the contributions of the university’s scholarship donors and the achievements of scholarship recipients.

WPI officials expressed deep thanks and appreciation for Mr. Poplawski’s generosity.

“We are humbled and eternally grateful for Mr. Poplawski’s gift,” said WPI President and CEO Dennis D. Berkey, who with his wife, Cathy, recently visited Mr. Poplawski to thank him personally for his commitment to WPI, and presented him with an honorary bachelor of science in engineering degree. “His determination to complete his studies and then launch an outstanding career – all the while remembering his WPI roots – is truly extraordinary. We are confident that his generosity and foresight will serve a new generation of WPI students.”

An ambitious young man with an affinity for building kites and model airplanes, Mr. Poplawski overcame personal adversity. The second son of three boys and four girls, he lost both parents by the age of 12 and later lived at his oldest sister’s house. His uncle gave him $200 to start the first semester at WPI, but he was forced to drop out after his freshman year. He then enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps – a forerunner of the United States Air Force – and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1939.

He later was assigned as a pilot to help the British, who were engaged in a war in North Africa. The assignment was extended over Saudi Arabia and India, and into China. After 13 months the expanded airline was militarized and the United States was involved in World War II.

Mr. Poplawski started working for the Glenn L. Martin Co. in 1942 after a year flying in Africa for Pan American Airways. At Martin, most of Mr. Poplawski’s test flying was on the B-26 Marauder, but he also flew A-30 and the PBM-3 aircraft. Following World War II, he received his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical/mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California in 1948. He returned to the Martin Co. as an aeronautical engineer and was recalled in 1951 to active duty in the Korean War to fly Martin-made B-29s.

Mr. Poplawski then was sent to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, where he set up the Guided Missile Training School, and later became its director. He trained mechanics and operators for the Martin-made pilot-less missiles known as “Matador” and “Mace.”

His career field changed from flying to air/aerospace technical intelligence as his next duty was a four-year assignment to the CIA in Washington, D.C. He retired from the Air Force in 1966 with 20 years of active duty and 12 years in the reserves.

In retirement, Mr. Poplawski is a member of the Caterpillar Club, an informal association of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. During a test flight of a B-26G near Baltimore in 1944, he had to bail out through the door in the nose wheel compartment, according to documents. When WPI officials invited Mr. Poplawski to the Scholarship Dinner on April 3, he respectfully declined, noting that he is “done flying.”

Mr. Poplawski and his wife, Claytrice, married during World War II. She passed away in 2006. They enjoyed going on multiple cruises yearly and were particularly fond of cruises to the Pacific Rim. The couple also participated in many civic organizations throughout greater Dayton.

In addition, Mr. Poplawski is an avid poet and has written many poems chronicling his life, including one titled “Claytrice” that honors his wife and one titled “Who am I?” (I am an Aviator—A Bird Man) that showcases his life in flight.

In the last stanza of “Who am I?,” Mr. Poplawski shares his philosophy of flying. It may very well also come to symbolize the sense of spirit with which he has lived.

“Pilots are in the air, on the sea and in the everyday world,” he wrote. “Aviator is for the birds such as in Aviaries. And so it goes; you have to live with it.”

Former WPI student Henry R. Poplawski, a 98-year-old retired military pilot, has generated widespread media interest for his generous gift to WPI.