06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
It's May 21, and a tornado watch is in effect for southern Nebraska. So why is retired banker Elbert Loewenstein trudging along Highway 10 toward the town of Gibbon? Flash back to 1997. That's when Loewenstein, 67, told his wife, Betty, "I got an idea. I'm gonna walk to Gibbon for my 50th high school reunion." This, she surmised, was taking school spirit too far, since the couple live in Pinetop, Ariz., 1,000 miles on foot from Gibbon. "When I heard him telling other people," says Betty, 66, "I knew we were in trouble."
The six-state schlepp was more than just folly. Loewenstein set out on April 1 to drum up scholarship funds for Gibbon High and the Stamford, Neb., high school where he'd sent two of his three children. By the time he reached Gibbon 51 days later, he'd raised $50,000 from Nebraska banks and residents who had pledged a dollar a mile. To top it off, he added $15,000 of his own. "It's an example of someone giving back to small-town America," says Gibbon Mayor Monte Standage.
Loewenstein knows education turns lives around. An indifferent student in high school ("Common as an old shoe," says classmate Bob Clevenger), he got serious after Marine service in Korea, went to the University of Nebraska on the GI bill, then spent 24 years as a bank president. He married Betty in 1949; during his walk she was close by in their car, scouting hotels, keeping him in water, Baby Ruths and shoes (three pairs), and soaking his feet in Epsom salts. "Sometimes he looked just pitiful," teases Betty. Replies Elbert, deadpan: "You never told me that. You just said, 'Keep walkin', buddy.' "