Tim and Bernadette Marquez, 48
Denver, Colo.

When Tim Marquez was a senior at Denver's Lincoln High School, only half his friends made it to college. "I thought about that a lot over the years," says Marquez, who worked his way through school and earned millions in the oil industry. "It was such a waste for those kids not to go to school."

On Nov. 9 he and his wife, Bernadette, opened a new chapter for Denver's students with a spectacular gift. Beginning this year, the 900 seniors at Lincoln and two other public high schools will be eligible for full scholarships, free books and even computers at 33 Colorado institutions. To tap into the $50 million donated by the Marquezes—whose three daughters went to or currently attend Denver public schools—all students have to do is prove financial need. "Good ideas are a dime a dozen," says Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who calls the program the largest of its kind in any big city in the country. "What you need are people who can make it happen."

Enter the Marquezes, who intend to eventually give their whole fortune away. One of six kids of Denver schoolteachers, Tim majored in petroleum engineering and parlayed $3,000 in savings into a company valued at $715 million when it went public last month. Bernadette, raised in Michigan, met Tim at a bar after moving to Colorado in 1980 and still works part-time as a nurse. "We've never looked at the money as ours," says Tim. That's sweet news to Tanya Vivens, 16, a junior at Montbello High who wants to study medicine and worries about how to pay for it. "Now the pressure is on to make good grades," she says.

For details on how the Denver Scholarship Foundation works, visit WWW.DENVERSCHOLARSHIP.ORG