Surprise gift to LaGatella Scholarship supports LGBT community

As Wayne State University approaches the 25th anniversary of the trailblazing Michael P. LaGatella Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Endowed Scholarship, an unexpected gift has more than doubled the scholarship's size. An estate gift of $225,000 from community member Donald E. Smith will allow the scholarship to award approximately $15,000 annually.

Smith and his husband Glen R. Llewellyn were committed to supporting LGBT students. When the longtime metro Detroit residents read a newspaper article about the LaGatella Scholarship several years ago, they were moved by its impact, and Smith included a gift to the scholarship in his estate plans. In December 2017, Smith passed away, only a few months after Llewellyn. They were together for 58 years.

Smith's gift was a pleasant surprise to the scholarship's founders. "He wasn't somebody we knew," said LaGatella's partner Michael Laber, J.D. '88. "We are extremely grateful for his generosity and that of his partner."

The LaGatella Scholarship was created in 1992 in memory of Michael LaGatella, a Wayne State student and local activist who took his own life. It was Michigan's first scholarship for LGBT students and one of only a handful in the country. The scholarship was founded by Laber and friends David Coulter, John Burchett and Tim Mahoney.

As the friends dealt with their sudden loss, the idea to create a scholarship in LaGatella's memory seemed perfect. "It turned our profound grief into something joyous," said Laber. "Mike will be remembered, and his name will be attached to something so positive long after we're gone. That's amazing to me."

The LaGatella Scholarship has supported dozens of students since its inception and is open to LGBT students and allies who promote a positive identity within the LGBT community. The sense of connection the scholarship provides can be just as important as the financial support, given the continued challenges that LGBT individuals face.

Scholarship recipient Andrew Holderfield said the support means a lot to him personally. "When I saw there was a scholarship specifically designated for allies and members of the LGBT community, I was really excited," he said. "It was a tremendous sign of support for this wonderful community that I had not previously seen a lot of in my life."

Holderfield transferred to Wayne State in fall 2017 after earning his associate's degree in his home state of Alabama. Although moving to Detroit was an adjustment, he loves the diversity he has found in the city and on campus. "The inclusiveness within Wayne State helps a lot with me being open with my identity," he said. "If you see other people talk about it, you want to talk about it."

Holderfield hopes the community will continue to support the LaGatella Scholarship so even more students can benefit. "We'll just keep growing, and we can make sure people have opportunities," he said. "When I'm in the position to give, I hope to be as generous as our donors."

You can support the LGBT community on campus by making an online gift and entering "Michael LaGatella Scholarship" in the "Other designation" field.

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