Largest private gift in the history of the state

Norm Asbjornson, a Montana State University alumnus and Montana native from the small town of Winifred, has committed to give the university $50 million for its College of Engineering - the largest private gift in the history of the state.

Asbjornson's gift was announced Monday morning at a press conference in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Building on the campus of MSU in Bozeman to an audience of students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, business leaders and government officials.

"I am excited to see the amazing growth of MSU and the College of Engineering. I hope my gift challenges and inspires others who are in a position to advance the university that has given us so much. MSU needs our support now and this is the time to give back," said Asbjornson, a 1960 MSU mechanical engineering graduate. Asbjornson was also awarded an honorary doctorate in engineering from MSU and the Montana Board of Regents in 2004.

Asbjornson, 78, is the founder and president of AAON, a NASDAQ-traded heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) manufacturer based Tulsa, Okla., with annual revenues in excess of $300 million and more than 1,400 employees.

"Norm has inspired us and humbled us with not only his generosity, but with the depth of his character and his sense of responsibility for future generations," said MSU President Waded Cruzado. "This gift will transform the lives of generations of students, it will transform this campus, and it will transform the state of Montana in profound ways."

Asbjornson's gift will fund the construction of an innovative laboratory and classroom facility that will enable the collaborative, hands-on learning and leadership that embody the university's legacy and mission.  The building, to be named the Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center, is envisioned to promote dynamic interdisciplinary engagement, meaningful student-faculty interaction, and accelerated innovation that responds to and anticipates emerging trends in education, industry and society. Open to all, and anchored in the university's growing engineering programs, the building funded by Asbjornson's gift will bring to life an enduring, state-of-the-art asset that erects bridges between academic programs, serves today's outstanding students and faculty, and supports how learning and leadership will occur long into the future. University officials hope to break ground no later than the spring of 2016 and use the building to anchor development of the university's south campus.

In a previous MSU interview, Asbjornson described his feelings about gratitude and stewardship:

"I think it's an absolute must for everyone to give back to what made them successful. I had a lot of help from MSU and Winifred," Asbjornson said. "I can't repay those who helped me, for they're gone. But I can give to the next generation. I think everyone should balance the books and thank those people and institutions who helped them and also give to the next generation.

"It's a responsibility we all have."

Currently housed in Roberts Hall, Cobleigh Hall and portions of the Engineering and Physical Science Building (EPS), the College of Engineering has been the fastest growing college at MSU for the past two academic years and reached a historic, all-time high enrollment of 3,102 students in the fall of 2013 - up 12 percent from fall 2012. During this time, the college added six new tenure-track faculty lines to support the growth of students and increased its budget for graduate teaching assistants, who provide important teaching support.

From the fall of 2003 to the fall of 2013, the College of Engineering grew from 2,090 students to its current 3,102 students - 48.4 percent growth. The college has had no significant addition of teaching or laboratory space since the completion of the EPS Building in 1997.

"The College of Engineering has been growing rapidly and Norm's gift couldn't come at a better time to help us take our teaching, research and engagement to the next level," said Brett Gunnink, dean of the College of Engineering.

"As a successful engineer and businessman, Norm has seen first-hand how today's greatest challenges benefit from hands-on collaboration across academic disciplines," Gunnink said. "The building supported by this gift will be a game changer for our growing student body, for engineering education and for research and economic development in Montana."

MSU's College of Engineering offers 10 degrees and is home to some of the university's most successful research groups, centers and institutes in terms of student involvement, discovery and economic development.

Asbjornson has made previous gifts to the college and the university. In 2003, he endowed a $1 million scholarship fund for graduates from Montana high schools with 100 or fewer students. He also has created an endowed scholarship specifically for graduates of Winifred High School who attend MSU, and he created an endowment for the Burns Technology Center to develop innovative distance learning programs for rural Montana schools. In 2006, he gave more than $600,000 in cash, equipment and technical advice to create a one-of-a-kind HVAC laboratory in MSU's College of Engineering. His company, AAON, gives research grants to the College of Engineering on a continuing basis and has hired a number of MSU engineering graduates.

Asbjornson has also given of his time and ideas as a member and former chairman of the MSU Alumni Foundation board, through which his gift will be made, and as a long-time member of the College of Engineering advisory council. He has been a major philanthropist for his home town of Winifred as well.

He started his entrepreneurial career at the age of 10 when his uncle offered him a Model T in return for watering hundreds of chickens. For a summer, he hauled hundreds of gallons of water to the chickens from a well using two small pails. On payday, he learned the Model T had been covered in a flood and the engine was too rusted to start.

Undeterred, he worked on the car in his father's garage until it ran. Then he became his own boss and went into business hauling garbage for 25 cents a barrel. It felt like a lot of money to Asbjornson, who grew up during the Great Depression, his family starting in an 800-square-foot house with no indoor plumbing, running water, electricity or telephone. Asbjornson's parents added to the family home in the same way he added to his entrepreneurial skills.

After earning his degree in mechanical engineering, Asbjornson spent 28 years working in the HVAC business until he founded AAON in 1988. The company manufactures commercial air conditioning equipment weighing from 200 pounds to 20,000 pounds. Its equipment can be found cooling and heating businesses around Bozeman, throughout Montana and the nation.