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A life savings changes a life

Margarita Rios, left, with the Dean Cantwell Memorial Scholarship award presented by Lise Hamilton, right. Courtesy of Gina Zottola
Margarita Rios, left, with the Dean Cantwell Memorial Scholarship award presented by Lise Hamilton, right. Courtesy of Gina Zottola
When he was nearing the end of his life, Crescent City resident Dean Cantwell decided that he wanted to use his life savings to help change someone’s life for the better. Almost a year to the day after his death, Dean Cantwell did change someone’s life.

Last Wednesday, June 4, Del Norte High School student Margarita Rios sat with her fellow students awaiting the results of their scholarship applications, and with it, information that often determines if, how and where one goes to college. Much to her surprise, Margarita was awarded the Dean Cantwell Memorial Scholarship, which is managed by the Wild Rivers Community Foundation, the regional arm of Humboldt Area Foundation serving Del Norte and Curry counties. The Dean Cantwell Memorial Scholarship is a one-time, four-year award that offers $25,000 per year for the first three years of college, with the fourth year of the award being the payout of the remainder of the initial money that established the fund.

“I was speechless when I heard my name. It was so hard to believe because I never thought that I would be the one to receive such an amazing opportunity,” said Rios. “I can just remember walking up and feeling like it was a blur. I wanted to cry, but I was just so shocked.”

 “I’m sure Dean was smiling down on the scholarship award ceremony,” stated Tommy Sparrow, a dear friend of Dean Cantwell who worked with his wife, Donna, and fellow Del Norte Sunrise Rotary member Lise Hamilton to fulfill Cantwell’s wishes to create the scholarship fund.

Dean Cantwell grew up in Iowa and moved to Crescent City in 1992 after retiring from a career as a contractor building major subdivisions in the Monterey and Santa Cruz area. After spending years working in relatively affluent communities as a laborer, albeit a successful one, Dean developed a passion for helping young people improve themselves through education. Dean began contributing each year to Del Norte Sunrise Rotary’s annual Third Grade Dictionary Program, and through Rotary’s annual award of scholarship monies to deserving local high school students. As the years passed, Dean developed a dream to create a four-year scholarship award to transform the life of one extraordinary young person from Del Norte County. That person is Margarita Rios, who will be studying nursing at Sonoma State University this fall.

Although Margarita’s mother did not attend college, she encouraged her daughter’s appreciation for education her whole life: “‘You better keep your grades up. I better see no C’s on that report card, and stay away from those boys!’ If I had a dollar for every time I heard this from my mom, I would have more than enough money for college tuition,” Rios said. “I am a first-generation college student in my family. My parents didn’t graduate from high school, but I grew up knowing that I would go to college. If I could speak to Dean Cantwell, I would thank him so much for this amazing opportunity. I would tell him how he has truly changed my life and that I will prove to him that I used the scholarship well and make him proud as if he were still alive.”

Establishing a memorial scholarship fund can often be healing during the grieving process and has proved to have been a rewarding experience for those working to honor Dean Cantwell’s memory and wishes.

“I think Tommy is so grateful that we have been able to accomplish this memorial. Honoring Dean’s wishes in this way means the world to him,” said Lise Hamilton, a local attorney and Rotarian who assisted Sparrow in establishing the fund with Wild Rivers Community Foundation. “In the last year, we went from coming to terms with Dean’s death to trying to make the scholarship happen to giving Margarita the award last Wednesday night. It is the end of this process for us, but the beginning of a whole new life for Margarita.”

Hamilton added, “For me, the process went very smoothly with Wild Rivers Community Foundation, and we accomplished what we wanted to do. Dean wanted to transform the life of one extraordinary individual. Margarita’s life has been changed for the better, and it felt good to have a small part in that.”

Margarita Rios has this insight for anyone who has or is considering creating a scholarship fund: “I would tell them that they are changing a student’s life, and that is such a huge thing. It means so much to a student that it is hard to put a thank-you into words. They are giving students opportunities that they never thought that they would achieve. It’s an amazing thing to want to give money and help shape a person’s life.”

The Wild Rivers Community Foundation (WRCF) focuses on building local philanthropy by connecting people like Dean Cantwell to the cause that matters most to them. As the regional arm of Humboldt Area Foundation, WRCF serves all of Del Norte and Curry counties. A local community foundation, WRCF builds partnerships with individuals, families, organizations and other foundations to benefit charitable projects and programs in our region that meet a broad range of community goals.

 For information about establishing a fund or applying for a scholarship with Wild Rivers Community Foundation, contact Gina Zottola, program officer of donor and grantmaking services at 465-1238 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it



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