Blog Alumni

The impact of life-long generosity

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


As a sophomore piano performance major, Curtis Baum spends a lot of time practicing, but sometimes that’s hard to do considering his other studies and the four jobs he holds to help pay for school. On the other hand, Celesta Bleeker ’54 has extra time on her hands and she loves music, but it’s hard for her to get out much anymore considering she is wheelchair-bound and living in a nursing home.

To some it may seem that while Baum’s best days are still ahead of him that Celesta’s most productive days are behind her. In reality, Celesta is a happy reminder of God’s promise in Psalm 92:14. Even in her senior years, Celesta has found a way to maintain her lifelong passion for serving Christ and Northwestern students such as Baum.

Long before Baum ever sat at a piano, Celesta graduated from Northwestern with a Bachelor of Arts in Music. She worked 15 years with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association where special blessings included attending crusades—even in Hawaii—and meeting her best friend for life, the late Edna Kooyman ’48. 

In 1969, Celesta returned to Northwestern and dedicated 25 years working in areas key to the day-to-day functioning of the school: serving as the chief accountant; overseeing payroll so that it always went out on time—even when the staff was cut, the money was tight and the machines wouldn’t work; assisting Reverend Richard Beals in the alumni/development department; answering the main switchboard; and eventually, cataloging music and booking concert tours.

Celesta recalls her greatest joy was watching how students changed during their time at Northwestern and helping them get through school financially including giving anonymous personal gifts of money. She will never forget how a father knelt down before her and said, “My son would never have gotten through if it hadn’t been for you.” Another time, in gratitude for her financial gift, a student recipient offered to pay her back, but she said to pay it forward to another student in financial need.

To this day, Celesta continues her life-long practice of generosity. Various gifting strategies through Northwestern Planned Giving and Northwestern Foundation have allowed Celesta to give to the annual fund and special projects including Billy Graham Commons, lights for the new athletic field and, probably closest to her heart, refurbishing the Steinway grand piano in Nazareth Chapel—the same piano Baum loves to play.

Interestingly enough, Celesta was the bookkeeper who wrote the purchase order for that piano, which was a gift from Northwestern board member, Jay Sudenga, the man from whom she received her very first job as a young girl back in George, Iowa. 

“Generosity matters because it provides for things that get overlooked but which make a huge difference,” says Baum. “Rebuilding the Steinway in Nazareth Chapel is a great example of an unusual project which has greatly blessed the pianists and really the whole music department.” In turn, Northwestern’s music professors and students pay that blessing back as the Northwestern Choir and Piano Tour travels around the Midwest performing in schools, nursing homes and smaller towns. 

As the winner of Northwestern’s 2016 Concerto-Aria contest, Baum was featured in a solo piano performance with the orchestra. “It was phenomenal to see Miss Bleeker in the audience last year and meet her and hear her story—to actually meet the person behind the scholarship who helps make it possible for me to attend Northwestern. Music scholarships mean that I can dedicate more time to practicing.” 

Over the years, Celesta has set up three “pass-through” scholarships: The Celesta M. Bleeker Music Scholarship, the Edna Kooyman Intercultural Studies Scholarship and the Edna Kooyman girls’ basketball fund. Celesta also receives steady income from her Northwestern gift annuities and plans on leaving a generous gift from her estate to Northwestern when she passes away. Celesta has also contributed to the Northwestern Fund, a fund that benefits every Northwestern student. 

Baum’s respect for Celesta’s generosity is heartfelt. “When I sit down to play the grand piano in Nazareth Chapel, it’s encouraging to recognize that not only was Miss Bleeker the one who refurbished the piano, but she is also helping me personally pay for my education. Someday, I hope to use my gifts in whatever circumstance God needs me to use them—as a performer, a piano teacher and an accompanist.”