In Memoriam: Henry Poplawski ’39, a Retired Aviator Whose Extraordinary Gift Will Provide Aid for Future WPI Students

Never forgetting how financal hardship forced him to drop out of WPI, he committed $7.8 million for student scholarships
July 24, 2015

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Henry Poplawski ’39, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and an avid supporter of WPI, passed away on July 15, 2015, in Dayton, Ohio. He was 101.

Poplawski, known as “Pops” to family and friends, was born in Worcester to Stephania Baremba and Leopold Poplawski. The fifth of seven children, as a child he had an affinity for building kites and model planes. He faced adversity early, losing both parents before he was 12, and later lived with an older sister. At six-foot-one, he was among the tallest boys at Commerce High School, where he played basketball and graduated in 1933.

He came to WPI as a freshman in the mid-1930s, thanks to the generosity of an uncle who gave him $200 to finance his first semester, but was forced to drop out before the end of his first year due to financial hardship. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, trained as an aircraft mechanic, and was stationed at Selfridge Field in Michigan. While there he became a Link Trainer (flight simulator) instructor, and during the off hours he taught himself to fly the simulator. He applied for and won a cadet flying spot in 1938, and reported to Randolph Field in Texas in February 1939.

Poplawski soloed on April 5, 1939, and graduated from flight training that November. His first assignment was with the 6th Air Transport Squadron, Middletown Air Depot, in Pennsylvania, where he flew C-47 transport planes around the country. In 1940 and 1941, Second Lieutenant Poplawski supported the development of airborne parachute drops at Ft. Benning, Ga. From September 1941 to October 1942, he was assigned to the Pan American Airways, operating a military air transport line in Africa. He had the opportunity to transport General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell over Jerusalem and into China, ferry RAF fighter aircraft, and establish the supply network to support the North Africa Campaign.

Between October 1942 and August 1945, Captain Poplawski served as a test pilot for the Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore, Md., flying the B-26 medium bomber, the A-30 light attack bomber, and the PBM maritime patrol aircraft. He earned membership in the "Caterpillar Club" when he successfully bailed out of a crippled B-26G on November 8, 1944.

He married Claytrice Mary Gannon on May 26, 1944, and following the war they both attended the University of Southern California, graduating in 1948. He returned to the Martin Company, working as guided missile engineer from 1948 to 1951.

Poplawski was recalled to active duty and assigned to the Pilotless Training Unit at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado from 1951 to 1955. From 1955 to 1959, he served in the Office of Scientific Intelligence in Washington, D.C., and from 1960 to 1964 was assigned to the Foreign Technology Division, Detachment 4, in Tokyo. He was then stationed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where he continued to work for the Foreign Technology Division; he retired from active duty in April 1966. As a member of the USAF Civil Service, Lt. Col. Poplawski continued to work for the Foreign Technology Division until his retirement in 1977.

Throughout his life, Poplawski never forgot WPI, nor the disappointment he felt when he had to leave the Institute so early in his college career. More than seven decades later, he decided that he wanted to help future generations of students facing similar financial challenges avoid his fate. He committed $7.8 million through a planned gift for student scholarships at WPI, making his one of the largest gifts the university has ever received.

For Poplawski, this gift to the university represented heartfelt thanks for giving him the start he needed as a young adult. “I owe WPI a lot,” Poplawski told the WPI Journal in spring 2013, soon after the university learned of his remarkable commitment. “WPI got me on the right path. I probably wouldn’t have gone to college otherwise. I had no money to complete my studies, so I want to help others continue theirs.”

His gift will support scholarships for WPI undergraduates with financial need. Scholarship support represented a major component of WPI’s recent fundraising effort, if…The Campaign to Advance WPI, which was successfully completed on June 30, 2015, above its $200 million goal.

For Poplawski, the gift was a reminder of the impact WPI had on his early years and his way of giving back to help those students in need. “I don’t want anyone else to have to leave school because they can’t afford it,” he said.

In his retirement years, Poplawski and his wife traveled the world on numerous cruises. The couple also participated in many civic organizations throughout greater Dayton, Ohio, where they lived. Poplawski was a longtime member of the Order of Daedalians ("Fraternal Organization of Military Pilots") and Saint Helen's Catholic Church. Claytrice Poplawski passed away in 2006.

Poplawski was also an avid poet and had written many poems chronicling his life, including one titled Claytrice that honored his wife and one titled Who am I? (I am an Aviator—A Bird Man) that showcased his life in flight.

In the last stanza of Who am I?, Poplawski shared his philosophy of flying. It is also an apt summary of the spirit with which he lived. “Pilots are in the air, on the sea, and in the everyday world,” he wrote. “Aviator is for the birds, such as in aviaries. And so it goes; you have to live with it.”

A visitation will be held at the Tobias Funeral Home in Dayton, Ohio, at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 25, followed by a funeral mass at 10:30 a.m. at St. Helen's Catholic Church, 605 Granville Place, in Dayton. Burial will be at the Veterans Cemetery in Dayton at 10 a.m. on July 28. Memorial contributions may be made in Henry's memory to Flight 9 Order of Daedalians, P.O. Box 33564, Building 16, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH 45433-0564, or Saint Helen's Catholic Church.