$8.5 million gift to Cuesta College will go toward scholarships

A bird's-eye view of Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.
A bird's-eye view of Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

An $8.5 million endowment bequeathed to Cuesta College — the largest donation ever received by the community college — will provide scholarships to all incoming San Luis Obispo County high school graduates into perpetuity.

The new program, called the Cuesta College Promise, will begin in 2014 and pay the first semester costs, currently about $626, of all incoming county freshman.

A longtime Morro Bay couple, Charles and Leeta Dovica, left the money to the college in their family trust with only one stipulation: that it is used for student scholarships.

Leeta Dovica died in April, and the college was notified shortly thereafter that two-thirds of the couple’s estate was earmarked for student scholarships, said Superintendent Gil Stork.

Each year about 700 local high school graduates attend Cuesta College.

“We want to capture a higher number of graduates who choose to come to Cuesta College,” said Stork. “There are a large number of students who don’t think they can go because of financial barriers and we want to remove that concern.”

Stork said students who apply will be required to apply for additional financial aid and grants to help guarantee that they will continue their educations.

The Cuesta College Foundation, which is the fundraising arm of the college, typically gives about $200,000 in scholarships each year. The Dovicas’ gift will increase the scholarships to $500,000 a year.

The Dovicas were a quiet couple with humble beginnings, said Jack Franklin, who knew the couple for 40 years as both a friend and as their real estate broker.

Charles was born in Hungary and was majoring in economics at the University of Budapest when he fled the Nazi invasion without completing his degree.

He immigrated to England where he met and married Leeta. Together they moved to Canada in the 1950s and to the United States in 1961 with only what would fit in their Volkswagen bus and $1,000.

She and Charles started a custom drapery manufacturing business in Southern California, which later became Dovica Industries and catered to large clients such as department stores Broadway and Sears.

Although Charles was never able to complete his economics degree, he became a self-taught businessman, Franklin said.

Each day Charles read the Investor’s Business Daily, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. In 1972 the couple began investing in real estate on the Central Coast and eventually made more than 40 real estate transactions.

The nine remaining properties are now being sold to fund various scholarships, said Franklin.

Charles died in the early 1990s. The couple, who had no family locally, decided to leave their estate to Cuesta College and to charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army after consulting with Morro Bay attorney Jim Merzon.

Merzon, who has a daughter-in-law who teaches at the college, has been a long supporter of the community college.

“They were an advocate of education primarily because of Charles,” said Franklin.

“After he fled from Hungary he was left to teach himself.”

Charles Dovica never forgot one lesson from his early life.

“He was creative as an investor in stocks and bonds but also kept a satchel of precious metals such as gold,” Franklin said. When asked why, Charles told Franklin that it was because the satchel was portable. If for some reason he and his wife were forced to leave America, they would have enough to begin again.

“He was very pragmatic about life,” said Franklin. “He would have been pleased to see the scholarship fund that has been developed at Cuesta College.”

Likewise, Leeta wanted to see their good fortune passed on to the community.

“She was grateful for the blessings of higher education, hard work, and an entrepreneurial spirit in America,” Franklin said.

Their donation ranks as one of the top five donations in the history of cash gifts to community colleges in California, said Bob Wacker, the president of the Cuesta College Foundation.

Cuesta students can begin applying for the scholarship on Nov. 1.