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A wildcat - Oilman's vow to put 550 middle schoolers through college reflects fervent belief in education, Denver Post

Jack Cox

His younger daughter is celebrating her sixth birthday. Outside, the pool and yard are awash in the barely controlled chaos of "25 wee ones," as his Irish-born wife puts it.

Away from the screams, inside their rambling, Santa Fe-style house, Alex Cranberg finds temporary refuge in the library.

Thoughtfully, he explains what led him last month to make one of the most munificent offers in recent Denver history - a pledge to put 550 middle schoolers through college if they graduate from high school.

"Education is the engine of mobility and opportunity. It's the basis for everything else," Cranberg says, his words underscored by the room's book-lined walls.

"But it's not just about gaining knowledge and skills. It's also about inspiration. The most important thing anybody can get out of education is the motivation to make the most of himself or herself as a human being. Look at it at that level, and you have to ask: How can anything be more important?"

Cranberg, a 49-year-old Denver oilman who describes himself as a "philanthropic entrepreneur," could donate portions of his sizable income to any number of beneficiaries. But he confines his largesse to a few undertakings that advance his No. 1 priority: education.

Aside from his guarantee of college tuition for students from Horace Mann Middle School, his most magnanimous gesture has been a scholarship fund he created to help send disadvantaged kids to private and parochial schools - options he says are often better than public schools.

The Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE), the foundation Cranberg set up to administer the program, has handed out more than $4.6 million in aid to some 1,100 students over the past four years.

"He has an incredible passion for children and children's educational health," says Nita Gonzales, head of Escuela Tlatelolco, a private, Latino-oriented school where about 30 of the 140 students this year had ACE scholarships.

"He's extremely thoughtful and very creative … a doer and a problem-solver," Gonzales notes. "He's also a maverick and an independent thinker - not a person who marches to a party drum and not, to my mind, a typical Republican."

While Cranberg has been a major contributor to the Colorado Republican Party and a champion of school vouchers, an idea embraced by the GOP, he also has given to Democratic candidates, and he favors relaxed immigration laws - a stance putting him at odds with some Republican leaders.

Impatient with status quo

Cranberg's involvement in such high-profile issues, plus his standing as a member of the board of trustees of Metropolitan State College (he was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens in 2002), might suggest he's contemplating a run for office.

But he says he's not about to give up his first love - the oil and gas business. Hence his first foray into politics - as precinct chairman of his freshman dorm in college - may have been his last.

Besides, Cranberg feels more allegiance to individuals than the parties they represent, just as he cares more about students than the type of school they attend. "I find myself drawn to people who are willing to innovate a little bit and don't just go along with the same old thing, people who push the envelope a little and try new things," he says.

"I get impatient with bureaucrats who are mainly interested in the status quo, and that's why I'm interested in school choice. I think every child should have a choice (of where to go to school), but unfortunately, the choice that many have is only between staying in or dropping out."

Says George Brantley, executive director of the Hope Center, a privately funded preschool and day-care program at 3400 Elizabeth St., "The thing I admire about him is that he puts his money where his mouth is."

Cranberg's conviction that a good education is central to one's success - and that outside support can be just as crucial - stems from personal experience.

The son of a physicist who worked at Los Alamos in the 1950s and later joined a high-tech company in Austin, Texas, Cranberg remembers being told after his junior year in high school that if he wanted to go to college, he would have to pay his own way.

He did, putting himself through the University of Texas with proceeds from a National Merit Scholarship and other grants, plus summer jobs as a roustabout in the oil fields.

After earning a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering, however, he found that he "wanted to accomplish more."

Law school beckoned - "I'd always been interested in the larger questions of policy and government," he says - but his entrepreneurial streak won out. In 1981, he added a Stanford MBA to his résumé.

Now an independent oil and gas producer, Cranberg is the founder and president of Aspect Resources LLC, a company that has made millions over the past decade as a result of early investments in 3-D seismic technology - an advanced technique for detecting oil-bearing formations.

The firm owns producing oil and gas wells in several onshore locations along the Gulf Coast, in South America and in Hungary. It also is involved in potash mining in Utah and New Mexico and wind power projects in Southern California and other states.

"The way you get to be a success is by finding something that works really well, and doing it over and over again," Cranberg says. "That's one of the things I find most frustrating about public education. There are a lot of great ideas, like the bilingual Montessori school in northwest Denver, but they're not duplicated."

Cranberg and his wife, Susan Morrice, a petroleum geologist who was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (and who is as ebullient as he is reserved), live on a large wooded property east of University Boulevard in Greenwood Village, a location that would allow them to send their two children to Cherry Creek schools. But their daughters - Clare, 6, and Hannah, 10 - are both enrolled in private school.

The couple's adobe-style house - once owned by the late Floyd Haskell, a U.S. senator from Colorado in the 1970s - bespeaks comfort more than opulence. Rather than marble and stainless, it features rustic carved wood doors and plank floors. A black Labrador and a Chesapeake Bay retriever, named Sunlight and Murphy, lounge wherever they drop.

Cranberg drives the children to school on his way to work, and keeps three horses around as pets, even though they're too old to be ridden much.

He also keeps an old cello, as a reminder of a career goal he abandoned when he realized that "the best I'd be was a good orchestral musician, and not the best in the world."

Morrice, 51, shares her husband's commitment to education, joining him in making an annual contribution of $10,000 or more to the Mile High United Way, with the money earmarked for the ACE fund.

She also embraces a less academic approach to education: the human-potential gospel preached by the Irish hypnotherapist Tony Quinn, organizer of a two-week "Educo" seminar they attended in the Bahamas two summers ago.

"Big thinking globally"

Quinn's philosophy, which promotes what he calls "mind technology," has been derided as cultlike brainwashing by critics but is defended by adherents as positive and life-changing.

"It's about learning from within - by being, by truly living," Morrice says. "It's about big thinking globally but also in terms of using 100 percent of your mind."

She continues to be a principal in a company she founded, Belize Natural Energy, blending her work and home life as casually as she mixes up a batch of pancakes for her daughters or dashes off an e-mail to Ireland from the computer on her kitchen counter.

The offer to Horace Mann was inspired by Mayor John Hickenlooper's earlier guarantee of support for students at Cole Middle School - contingent on the mayor's success in securing private funding.

"That gave me the idea, although it had been rattling around in my head for a while," Cranberg says.

He selected Horace Mann as the beneficiary in consultation with Denver Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Wartgow.

"I told him to pick a school with a large number of immigrants, where my offer would make an incrementally large difference," Cranberg says. "I didn't want one where everybody would be going to college anyway."

At Horace Mann, at 4130 Navajo St., about 90 percent of the students come from Hispanic homes, 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and test scores are among the lowest in the district for middle schoolers.

Cranberg's pledge commits him to paying the equivalent of tuition at Metro State - about $2,400 a year at present, or nearly $10,000 over four years - for each current student who gets a diploma and goes to college. (The money could be used at any college or university.) The total outlay could be $5 million.

Why not just donate the money directly to the school? His purpose, he says, is to motivate individual students, not ease the district's financial crunch.

"Having the money accessible is just one part of the equation. We'll also have a college counselor to work with the kids, because you've got to have somebody to encourage them, help them fill out the applications and mentor them."

While his generosity draws praise, even from foes on the voucher issue, some say the money could help more kids.

"If he wanted to do something that would leave a lasting legacy and benefit all kids, it would be good to look at investing that $5 million in an ongoing intervention program that could address the core reasons why kids do not go on to finish school," says retired teacher Sue Wendels, a Democratic state senator from Arvada.

"We might be able to make a significant difference for all children, rather than maybe just have a lifeboat for some."

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