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Geology grad pays it forward by ‘adopting’ Blugold field campers

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students participate in a geology field camp in Montana each year.

A geology field camp in Wyoming as a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire undergraduate gave Ric Kopp the confidence and hands-on experience necessary to have a 48-year career as a professional geologist in the oil and gas industry.

Ric Kopp

Ric Kopp

“It really opened up my eyes to what geology is all about,” Kopp says of that field camp during this third year at UW-Eau Claire. “We got to see fossil collecting in the Badlands, volcanic geology in Yellowstone, oil and gas operations in the Big Horns and some mining operations in the Wind Rivers.”

But the cost of the six-week camp nearly derailed Kopp’s college career. While he was at field camp, the Eau Claire Memorial graduate lost six weeks of wages from his $2.50-an-hour part-time job at Huntsinger Farms, the world’s largest horseradish grower located near his parents’ home south of Eau Claire.

Kopp, who was paying his own way through college, did not have the money to pay tuition and other expenses for the 1974-75 academic year. When Kopp informed his supervisor at Huntsinger Farms, farm manager Eugene Heintz, that he could work full-time that fall instead of going to school, Kopp was told the company would help make sure that he had the funds to fulfill his dream of becoming a geologist.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to work here the rest of your life. We’re going to help make sure you get your degree,’” Kopp recalls Heintz telling him.

Geology field camp 2024

Huntsinger Farms more than doubled Kopp’s wages to $5.28 an hour and allowed him to work all the hours he needed to earn enough money for tuition and other school expenses. Kopp worked afternoons, nights and weekends — sometimes long hours in a day — picking corn, driving truck or anything else “to keep the money flowing in so I could continue to pay for school.”

“They didn’t give me that education; they made me work for it,” says Kopp, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1975. “They put the importance on setting a goal and working for it. I took that with me in everything I did the rest of my life.”

Nearly 50 years later, Kopp remembers what Huntsinger Farms did for him and is “paying it forward” by helping to defray field camp expenses so today’s Blugold geology majors have the same experiences he had without having to worry about their finances.

Kopp and his wife, Jacqueline, donate to two funds in the geology department’s Adopt a Field Camper program to help minimize student debt for geology students. He helps fund the Paul Myers and Ronald Willis Geology Field Camp Scholarship that reduces the cost of students attending the three-week field camps in New Mexico in winter and Montana in summer — with students with the highest financial need receiving 100% of their tuition covered and all students receiving some funding regardless of need. Myers and Willis were two of Kopp’s geology instructors and mentors.

Kopp also donates to the Field Camp Advancement-Geology and Environmental Science Fund used to buy equipment and maintain high-quality field camp experiences.

Geology field camp 2024

Kopp’s story reflects “the true essence of philanthropy and giving back,” says Julia Diggins, interim president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.

“Huntsinger Farms’ creativity fueled Ric’s generosity,” Diggins says. “He took an opportunity provided by a wonderful business and turned it into impact that has touched Blugolds for many years. What we don’t know is how those same Blugolds will go out and not only touch their communities but pay it forward to the next generation of students.”

Dr. Kent Syverson, professor of geology and environmental science, calls Kopp “an amazing friend of our geology department who has never forgotten about his roots.”

“It is the most amazing story I’ve heard for the motivation for giving,” Syverson says. “It always brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. I think some people kind of forget where they come from. Ric Kopp has never forgotten where he has come from, and he has made a major impact on our students.”

The New Mexico field camp during Winterim is required of all geology majors while the Montana camp is a requirement for all general comprehensive geology majors. Syverson says students mature as geologists at field camp as they solve real problems like professional geologists to prepare them for jobs in oil and gas, environmental, regulatory and mining industries.

“Field camp is the most important thing in geologic education,” Kopp says. “You can learn anything you want from a book, but you have to get out in the field and get hands-on experience. My whole career in the oil and gas business was not just sitting in an office making maps; it was out in the field looking at outcrops, looking at rocks, setting wells.”

Kopp used his UW-Eau Claire field camp knowledge throughout his career working for oil and gas companies in states such as Utah, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Michigan and Alaska, as well as in some international areas. He also helped establish successful companies before selling them.

Despite that professional success, Kopp remembers what life was like going to college while working long hours at a vegetable farm to pay his tuition.

“Ric has a giving spirit, and he has never forgotten what it is like to be a poor college student,” Syverson says. “Thanks to his success as a geologist, he is now investing in the next generation of geologists and environmental scientists.”