The next generation carries on a family tradition of generosity to WSU

Betsy (Holmberg) Sunich says it all began when she was a WSU student returning to her dorm room after a Saturday outing and found a note on her desk: Betsy, hurry and change; you have a date tonight. A friend of Betsy’s had arranged a blind date with another student named Paul Sunich.

Betsy ’60 was attracted to Paul ’59 from the start—he was more worldly and wiser than most of the male students she had met. Paul was attending WSU thanks to the G.I. Bill after serving in the Korean War.

That blind date led to 65 years of marriage and five decades of commitment to investing both time and treasure in WSU—including serving in volunteer leadership roles and establishing an endowed scholarship. With Paul’s passing earlier this year, Betsy is now carrying on the family tradition—along with the Sunichs’ two children, who are carving out their own paths as ardent philanthropic Cougs.

After Paul graduated with a degree in construction management (known as light construction theory at that time), he soon took over the company where he was working, Quality Pacific, Inc., a construction and property management firm that he grew significantly, building and managing apartment projects in Wenatchee for more than 40 years.

The Sunichs settled in Bellevue and raised their two children—Steve ’82 and Shelley ’85. A favorite family activity was spending time on their boat, Solace (pictured above). And while their boat—a beautiful 36-foot trawler with handsome wooden details—was an outward sign of their success, it also became a symbol for Cougars coming together in the Seattle area.

Launching the Cougar Yacht Club

In the late ’70s and into the ’80s, Sunich and fellow Coug boater, Larry Culver ’64, of nearby Newport Shores, were members of the WSU Events Committee and helped plan activities for Seattle-area alumni. They had wanted to start a Cougar Yacht Club, and thought the Seattle Yacht Club’s (SYC) annual Opening Day boat parade presented an opportunity to promote WSU and bring Cougars together, especially other Coug boaters.

In 1984, the Sunichs took the lead. As members of the SYC, Paul and Betsy registered for the boat parade, a tradition sponsored by the SYC and the University of Washington since 1920. They decorated Solace—the only WSU entry—with streamers of glimmering crimson and silver, turning their boat into a vessel of Cougar pride, and when the flotilla made its way along the Montlake Cut toward Union Bay, thousands of spectators, which included many area Cougs, enthusiastically cheered the Solace on.

At the time, Paul recalled, “Betsy and I didn’t know what to expect, with all those purple decorated boats owned by UW people. We were surprised by the warm reception—no one threw eggs.” Another surprise: They won the first prize for best-decorated powerboat.

This success helped launch the Cougar Yacht Club, which now has more than 200 members in the Puget Sound area, along with a major presence in the annual SYC’s Opening Day Parade—an event that attracts many area Cougars—many of whom had not been involved in any WSU activities since leaving Pullman but who would go on to send their kids to WSU and give to the university.

Like father, like son

Throughout the years, the Sunichs served as members of the Foundation Board of Trustees and established the Paul and Betsy Sunich Endowment for Student and Faculty Excellence in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture. They long attributed their success to hard work as well as their WSU educations, and for more than 50 years have given back to their alma mater.

Paul Sunich passed away last March, and Betsy and their two children are committed to carrying on the family Cougar traditions. For the younger Sunichs, their love for WSU was instilled in them as children, and their own experience of Cougar pride and sense of community developed in them in its own way.

Steve originally planned to attend the California State University Maritime Academy (Cal Maritime) in Vallejo—a decision influenced by his love of the ocean and boating. But as he was packing to leave, checking off the items on Cal Maritime’s long list—crew socks, pocket flashlight, boots, uniforms that needed to be purchased, etc.—suddenly the whole idea of spending four years of college in a fully regimented environment, which included suiting up in a uniform and preparing for room inspections, no longer appealed to him. He headed to WSU.

During Steve’s sophomore year, when he showed up the first day of a required course for his major, the architecture professor, Donald Poe, saw the name Steve Sunich on his roster and asked if his father was Paul Sunich. He nodded. Poe had taught his father in the same course 22 years before.

“It was one of those moments that made me realize I was a part of Cougar tradition in a way I had never thought about,” Steve said.

From left: Ted Vanderheyden and Shelley Vanderheyden, Paul and Betsy Sunich, Lori and Steve Sunich

Like his father, Steve earned a degree in construction management—and he has owned a construction consulting company for 27 years. He has also served on the Construction Management Advisory Board of Directors for the Construction Management Program since 2017 and has guest lectured for WSU’s construction scheduling courses for the past 18 years.

During the Covid pandemic when many WSU students suddenly lost their sources of income after so many restaurants and other businesses closed, Steve and his wife Lori, an adopted Coug, stepped up by providing $50,000 for immediate use scholarships for students in WSU’s Construction Management Program.

Jason Peschel, head of the program, said, “For all those students receiving the scholarships, it meant the difference of continuing their education or dropping out.”

Steve also contributed to the endowment his parents established, as well as to the Donald Poe Excellence Fund, named after the professor who taught both himself and his father—a fund that allows professors to spend time on their research rather than spending time trying to raise money for their research.

Honoring her father

Shelley’s experience was quite different. “I did not want to be disowned by my Cougar parents,” she said jokingly, “so WSU was the only place I applied. For someone like me coming from a sheltered world, WSU was such a welcoming place, but it also made me become my own person.”

Shelley, who earned a pharmacy degree, recalls spending a lot of time studying. In fact, she did not meet her husband, Ted Vanderheyden ’83, who earned a mechanical engineering degree and went on to a successful engineering career, until after they both graduated. One thing they had in common: each of them had started giving back to WSU in the years immediately after graduation.

Prior to Paul’s death, to honor her father, Shelley and Ted endowed a scholarship for students in the Construction Management Program. They have also given to the Voiland College Mechanical Engineering Excellence Fund, which is also used for student scholarships.

Like Paul and Betsy, this generation of Sunichs and Vanderheydens have stepped up to help WSU students succeed in life.

“As my mother would say, we give back because it’s in our blood—Cougars are about helping other Cougars,” said Steve, “But Cougs are also about bringing Cougs together, and it’s that sense of community we love so much.”