Gossels family gives back

Elizabeth Doyon

Every family wants a legacy. Some families focus on perseverance, others on honesty, intelligence, or athleticism. The Gossels family –two brothers born in Germany at the start of World War II – has created its legacy through a history of giving and strong support for the Wayland schools. Said Werner Gossels, “The educational system is the most important part of this country. It’s the idea that everyone, no matter their origin, has the right to an education.”

At the end of March, members of WSPN traveled to Columbia University in New York City to attend a high school journalism convention. There, students had the opportunity to attend workshops about anything from student leadership to reporting strategies. The Gossels Family Foundation for Academic Excellence, founded by Werner and Elaine Gossels, provided part of the funding for this trip.

This local foundation has been contributing to the Wayland Schools for nearly twenty years. The foundation started with a sum of $100,000 in 1989, meant to act as a seed for investment. Over time, the money has been both added to and given away, providing funds for a variety of school programs that didn’t fit into the school budget. As Mr. Gossels said, the idea was to “to target the very best students in the system and develop programs that would challenge them.”

Meanwhile, the Gossels Family Fund for Human Dignity was founded by Peter and Nancy Gossels in 2000. It started with $30,000, meant to be spent over 2 years on projects which supported human dignity. There were no other funds or programs at the time that covered this purpose in the Wayland School system.

“Whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, we’re all human beings,” explained Peter Gossels. “But sometimes there seems to be more of an emphasis on the differences between people – instead of the fundamental equalities we share.”

The fund brought several programs to Wayland High School, including a performance by an orchestra conducted by a severely handicapped man from UMass Amherst – a moving demonstration of how one person can achieve amazing things, though they may not have all the abilities or opportunities society often sees as necessary for success. As Superintendent Dr. Gary Burton said, ““There are a lot of things going on in the world today that divide people, and this fund is meant to bring people together.”

Generosity is not uncommon in the Wayland community, but for donors to be as dedicated to education as the Gossels family is, is a rarity. Their commitment is rooted in the story of their migration to the United States from Germany. Peter and Werner Gossels were born German Jews in Berlin, just before the start of World War II and during the reign of the Nazi government.

Their mother sent them to France with a group of orphans when they were 9 and 6, respectively. They were near Paris in a town called Chabanne, when the country fell to the Nazis. They lived in a large house in the countryside, one of many that hid children in plain sight.

“The Vichy government was very meticulous about who was in these houses, because of rationing,” said the Gossels. “They would allow kids up to 17, and once the kids got too old to legally be in the house, they had to leave. Many of them ended up in the underground [resistance against the Nazis].”

Two years later, the Gossels brothers came to the United States with 300 other children, as refugees of the war. Though they were young, the brothers believe that the hundreds of refugee children were secured visas by a Quaker organization, with help from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The rest of their family – their mother, aunt, and grandparents – were all killed by the Nazis.

The two quickly assimilated into American culture. They were taken in by two different families, and both went to public high schools – Peter to Boston Latin and Werner to Brookline. From then on, their stories are models of immigrant success. The two attended Ivy League universities, Yale and Harvard, and then went on to become a lawyer and a real estate agent, respectively. When they finally settled down, both found themselves in the same small town Massachusetts community: Wayland.

“We were enormously grateful for the opportunities we were given, the spirit of this country – it has always been a generous country, a spirited place,” Werner explained.

Peter and Nancy’s three children and Werner and Elaine’s five children all went through the Wayland Public School System. As parents, they became deeply involved with community issues, and Elaine took a major role in CAPA, the Creative Arts Parents’ Association. Then, in 1989, came the decision to dedicate part of their earnings to the betterment of the Wayland Schools.

Summarized Dr. Burton, “The Gossels want to give us heads full of knowledge, and hearts full of compassion.”

However, this money hasn’t been perfectly managed over the years. The Fund for Human Dignity, which was originally meant to be completely spent over a period of two years, still holds $9,000. Meanwhile, the Fund for Academic Excellence is lacking in options; the money does not always go to the kind of programs the Gossels intended to support, yet those which model their ideals are often funded by other sources, such as the Wayland Public Schools Foundation.

In interviews and a recent meeting with the School Committee, Peter, Nancy, Werner and Elaine all pressed their interest in drawing ideas for potential projects from the community. They want the ideas they invest in to come from not only the School Committee, but from teachers, students, parents and residents.

“We believed that as citizens who had received that benefit [of the schools], we needed to make sure it continued for future generations,” emphasized the brothers. “So many kids don’t understand that they have such a small window to take advantage of that opportunity to go to school. We believe profoundly that this country gives every child at least an opportunity to get an education, and lead a better life.”