DES MOINES, Iowa (KCCI/CNN/Gray News) – Students all over Iowa know how much of a burden student debt can be.
It's so overwhelming that many students don't go to college.
Four years ago, that was going to be the case for Kira Conrad until a carpenter she had never met from Des Moines changed everything.
The Winterset native had the grades to be a therapist, but not the tuition money.
“I grew up in a single-parent household and I had three older sisters so paying for all four of us was never an option,” Conard said.
So, at her high school graduation party, she was preparing to break the news, college just wasn't possible.
"Almost made me feel powerless,” Conrad said. “I want to do this. I have this goal, but I can't get there just because of the financial part."
Then, her phone rang. Steve Nielsen was on the other end with some life-changing news.
He was representing a man named Dale Schroeder who wanted to send small-town Iowa kids to college.
"He was that kind of a blue-collar, lunch-pail kind of a guy,” Nielson said of the carpenter who worked 67 years for the same company. “Went to work every day, worked really hard, was frugal like a lot of Iowans."
Schroeder didn’t have a lot of personal property when died in 2005.
He owned two pair of jeans – one for work and one for church – and a rusty old Chevy truck.
But one thing he did have was a lot of money in the bank.
“I kind of was curious,” said Nielson, who was Schroeder’s friend, but also his attorney. “I said, ‘How much are we talking about, Dale?’ And he said, ‘Oh, just shy of $3 million,’ and I nearly fell out of my chair.”
When Schroeder died he left instructions to send kids to college who couldn’t afford it otherwise.
Before the money ran out, the penny-pinching carpenter picked up the college tab for 33 students, at $80,000 a person.
"For a man that would never meet me, to give me basically a full ride to college, that's incredible,” Conrad said. “That doesn't happen."
Dale Schoeder's obituary said he died with no descendants.
But Saturday night, the 33 Iowans he put through college meet for a meal, gathered around the old carpenter’s lunch box and dubbed themselves “Dale's kids.”
“Dale would be extremely proud,” Nielson said.