Posted 3:42 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3, 2022

Former lecturer of chemistry and biochemistry Joe Toce and his wife, Suzanne, have contributed more than $212,000 to the UWL Foundation — most of which has funded scholarships and research opportunities.

Joe and Suzanne Toce reflect on importance of giving

When Joe and Suzanne Toce were looking for a place to finish their careers and retire, they had three requirements.

Their new city needed to have NPR and PBS stations. It needed to have a bridge club. And it needed to have a university.

Their search led them to La Crosse, where Joe would teach chemistry and biochemistry at UW-La Crosse, and Suzanne would work as a neonatologist at Gundersen Health System.

Nearly two decades later, Joe and Suzanne are happy they chose La Crosse. UWL students and alumni should be grateful, too. Over the years, Joe and Suzanne have helped launch careers by donating thousands of dollars toward student scholarships, particularly for those with research interests in the sciences.

“Supporting that research really helps students get to the next level,” Joe says. “When you’re looking for that first job, you need to be able to show what you can do. We believe this is the best way for students to bolster their resumes and show employers that they have prowess beyond just the classroom.”

“We firmly believe in the power of education,” Suzanne adds. “As parents, Joe’s favorite saying has always been: ‘Educate your children. It’s the only way to get rid of them.’ So supporting that has always been important to us.”

Joe, originally from Hartford, Connecticut, and Suzanne, originally from Grosse Ile, Michigan, spent most of their careers in St. Louis, Missouri.

Joe ran a biochemistry company that, among other things, produced an active ingredient used in anti-cancer and anti-HIV drugs.

Suzanne worked for Saint Louis University, where she helped establish a medical ethics committee at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, and helped develop one of the first palliative care programs in the country.

After their children grew and went to college, they moved to La Crosse in hopes of settling down.

For Joe, teaching required an adjustment after years in the private sector.

“In industry, you’re paid for your performance and how good you are,” he explains. “But at a university, you’re going to find students at different levels and with different priorities. So it was definitely a challenge at first.”

Joe sought to make the college experience fun and challenging.

He’d often stump his students with brain teasers, such as: “If you’re sitting at the equator, how long does it take for the sun to set from the moment it touches the horizon?”

Eventually, he used his questions to create a contest in which the student with the most correct answers received a $1,000 award he called “The Goblet of Fire Scholarship,” named after a book in the “Harry Potter” series.

As the couple neared and entered retirement (Joe in 2012 and Suzanne in 2013), they created more scholarships and research opportunities for students.

The Drs. Suzanne & Joseph Toce Biochemistry Scholarship Endowment Fund, established through the UWL Foundation in 2009, funds two $1,000 scholarships awarded annually — one for a graduating senior and another for a returning undergraduate.

In 2019, they established the Joseph & Suzanne Toce Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship, which fosters collaborative research opportunities between an undergraduate student and a faculty mentor.

They also donated toward the Prairie Springs Science Center endowment, earning naming rights for one of the building’s research labs.

In total, Joe and Suzanne have contributed more than $212,000 to the UWL Foundation — most of which has funded scholarships.

Sara Gonske, a May 2021 graduate in biochemistry, received the Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship and the Toce Graduating Senior Award in Biochemistry.

The fellowship — which allowed her to conduct research alongside Associate Professor John May between her junior and senior years — was particularly impactful, she says.

“It helped me so that I didn’t have to spend as much time working in my survey job or going home and working on my grandparents’ farm. Instead, I could stay at school and learn with Dr. May, and get as much research experience as I could going into grad school,” says Gonske, who is in the University of Washington’s doctoral program in biochemistry. “Saving that time and getting those experiences was so valuable. That really adds to your resume and prepares you for the next level.”

While he loved teaching and supporting students, Joe has never lost his own passion for learning.

The year he retired, Joe signed up as a student to close the loop on some unfinished research.

Additionally, over the past several years, he has audited half a dozen courses on finance and economics because he wanted to learn more on the topics.

“Sitting in class with students, you realize that you’ve had very different life experiences and educational opportunities,” he notes. Regardless of age, “education is still important. It’s still the best way forward.”

While they came to La Crosse and UWL later in life, Joe and Suzanne say they have built lasting connections with the city and university.

Their favorite part of giving, they say, is seeing their donations make an impact on campus and in the community.

“We’ve given to UW-Madison (where Joe earned his Ph.D.) in the past, but we prefer to give locally,” Suzanne says. “Our money has more of an impact here. It’s an investment that pays off.”

Adds Joe: “La Crosse is just such a special place for us. You don’t really realize it until you’ve lived in or visited other towns this size.”

Read more stories from the January eLantern.