As a Montana State University Billings student with an eye on becoming a high school band director, Codie Wahrman had expenses to cover beyond tuition and books.

He needed a tuxedo and suits for performances.

Wahrman also had to attain fifth through sixth grade proficiency in every band instrument, from woodwinds to brass and piano, which meant additional purchases.

That’s where the Montana State University Billings Foundation stepped in, awarding multiple scholarships to the high school graduate from Townsend, Montana. It made a big difference to his family, who didn’t know how much financial help was available from the college.

“It was life-changing,” Wahrman said. “It relieved a huge burden on my parents.”

A 2010 MSUB graduate in music education and saxophone performance, he was hired that same year as the band and orchestra director at Billings Central Catholic High School.

Aging like fine wine

Playing a pivotal role in the foundation’s scholarship fundraising efforts is the Wine & Food Festival, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The festival’s final events for the year, which include silent and live auctions, take place May 19-20 on the MSUB campus.

Michelle Dawson and Sheila Christopherson are the 2017 co-chairs.

Since its inception, the festival has netted $5.3 million for MSUB, said Jeanne Moller, an Eastern Montana College graduate who now serves as the foundation’s development officer. She began working with the Wine & Food Festival in its third planning year.

Moller attributes the festival’s continued backing to people who understand that a significant number of MSUB students need some financial assistance to attend college.

“That’s the key to why people support it,” she said.

Initially, the festival funded a variety of MSUB programs, but the focus changed exclusively to scholarships 15 years ago, Moller said.

Money from the event helps sustain the MSUB Foundation’s scholarship funds. The number of scholarships and amounts awarded each year varies, depending on investment earnings. For the 2016-17 academic year, the foundation gave out more than $1.6 million in scholarships.

MSUB makes college accessible to students, said Moller and Amy Gibler Brown, an EMC graduate.

Many work more than one job to support themselves while taking a class or two a semester toward earning their degrees, Gibler Brown said.

As a college junior in 1979, she began working at the campus bookstore, became a full-time EMC employee in 1980 and worked for the college until 1992.

Forty percent of MSUB students are nontraditional, meaning they did not begin college directly after high school graduation. Those students often need scholarships to fund their education and at the same time, the community needs MSUB graduates to fill Billings-area jobs, she said.

“I’m really passionate about this (college),” Gibler Brown said. “I think MSUB changes lives forever.”

Gibler Brown has volunteered with the festival nearly every year since its beginning, including serving two years as co-chair. She also is assisting this year’s event. Since becoming an employee, she has volunteered in various capacities with MSUB and its foundation. Those include positions with several fundraising committees and as a member of the alumni and MSU Billings Foundation board.

Lots for Scholarships is Moller’s favorite part of the "Fine Finish," the Wine & Food Festival’s live auction finale. Rather than bid on an item, donors commit to a specific scholarship amount.

Established in 1999, Lots for Scholarships has raised $2.1 million. Students receive scholarships annually from the program and individuals also opt to give money to endowments for scholarships in perpetuity, said Moller.

Montana individuals who support foundation endowments can establish their contribution by filling out a form which qualifies them for the 40% Montana Income Tax Credit for Endowed Philanthropy; businesses and “pass through entities” receive a direct 20-percent credit. The credits are available through 2019.

A balanced blend

The Wine & Food Festival has been very effective in reaching out to the community, Wahrman said.

When he attended MSUB, he was a resident advisor and front-desk worker. He helped with the setup and take-down of the festival.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in Billings that doesn’t know about the Wine & Food Festival,” Wahrman said.

Moller agrees, saying it’s a regional event that receives support from communities outside Billings.

Every year between 200 and 300 people volunteer with the Wine & Food Festival, Moller said.

The chefs and wine experts donate their time, with the foundation paying travel expenses and DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel providing lodging.

John Slayer of Briggs Distributing has been a corporate partner for 25 years, recruiting wine masters and acquiring rare wines for the live auction.

The auctions also benefit from Bryon Stiller, EMC graduate and owner of National Information Systems, who provides accounting equipment. Spring Creek Landscaping donates landscaping materials to beautify the front of the tent for the weekend finale.

“It’s a community effort and it extends beyond Billings,” Moller said. “It does bring us all together.”

Popping the cork

The Wine & Food Festival continues to reap benefits long after the last toast is made at its annual fundraiser and is measured in the success of MSUB graduates.

Wahrman credits the college and its professors for his smooth transition from college to first-year teacher.

He anticipated having to work his way up the ranks, rather than being hired directly from college for a Class A teaching position.

“(MSUB) was really second to none to preparing me to teach,” Wahrman said. “I firmly believe they prepared me for that (Central position).”

After graduation, professors continued their support. One teacher, Dr. Gary Behm, has helped instruct Wahrman’s clarinet and saxophone students for the past eight years, he said.

“The experiences I had there (at MSUB) were really incredible,” Wahrman said.