Ross Potoff:

Philanthropist Gifts $1 Million to Pima JTED

By Rodney Campbell

Local students pursuing careers of the future through Pima JTED have a forward-thinking partner in Ross Potoff – a man who built his own distinguished profession from career and technical education.

His Potoff Private Philanthropy is contributing $1 million to Pima JTED. The generous gift will enhance programs and curriculum through an endowed chair that provides exciting career exploration experiences in middle school, recruitment capabilities for programs, student advisory services and counseling during high school and job placement assistance after skills certification.

Potoff Philanthropy also supports the new JTED Innovative Learning Center @ The Bridges, a technical training and academic building strategically located near The Refinery at Tech Parks Arizona. The center focuses on new programs, including engineering (with an emphasis on aerospace, mining and optics industry technologies), cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, air transportation-drone piloting, comprehensive health technology, entrepreneurship and an expansion of culinary/nutritional arts and 3D animation/game design.  

“We’re looking at kids’ futures,” Potoff said. “We’re determined to make it easier for them to enter the workforce with a vocation that will follow them their entire lives. The more diversification that we can provide them, the more well-equipped they will be to make career decisions.”

Potoff Private Philanthropy Executive Director Bill Westcott brought Pima JTED to his boss’s attention after attending a breakfast meeting where then-Superintendent Alan Storm made a presentation. When Kathy Prather took over after Storm retired in 2018, Potoff was impressed by the new superintendent’s enthusiasm and made his million-dollar commitment the following year.

“She is an absolute dynamo,” Potoff said. “She’s thinking out further than we do.”

While Prather greatly appreciates Potoff’s financial support, it’s his passion for helping students that most impresses her.

“The dedication to Pima JTED by Mr. Ross Potoff has taken our mission and vision to a new level,” she said. “He sees his own personal journey reflected in each of our former, current and future students and knows firsthand the life-changing opportunities that Pima JTED provides. He offers encouragement and enthusiasm that even exceed the immense financial support he has provided and continues to pledge.”

Potoff’s commitment to students is the result of his upbringing in Waterbury, Conn. At age 7, he was working in his father’s factory sweeping and cleaning. Five years later, he was working in the factory’s commercial darkroom making lithographic plates and silk screens for cosmetic product containers.

Uncertain of what direction he wanted to go, he enrolled in an exploratory skills program at Warren F. Kaynor Regional Technical High School, where he attained certification and expertise in numerous trades and manufacturing skills.

“One other person I knew went to a vocational school,” Potoff said. “Because of my background, I thought it might be a good direction to go since I was mechanically inclined. It was a good base for me to make my decision.”

After graduating from Kaynor, Potoff enrolled at Waterbury State Technical College to study mechanical engineering. In his first year, he took the Air Force aptitude test and his impressive result led him to enlist to continue his education.

“A college education isn’t for everyone,” he said. “By the time you graduate from college, your field may not exist any longer. You have robots doing things now. But who’s going to fix your toilet or rewire your house? Those jobs take skills and integrity.”

His Air Force career eventually brought him to Tucson, where he was stationed at Davis-Monthan. Potoff’s experience working with high-tech systems led him to a career at the University of Arizona’s Optical Sciences Center. In his position, Potoff was responsible for designing and building unique precision machinery and optics devices.

His lab had 18 doctoral candidates for whom he was responsible and a constant flow of scientists from across the globe. In 1992, the university honored him as an outstanding employee for his contribution to science and education. He retired in 2012 after almost 40 years.

“It was a little bit of magic,” Potoff said. “We were on the cutting edge of optical technology.”

That experience, combined with his years of technical education, helped spark his interest in JTED. All it took was a happenstance meeting and an eye on the future.

“I keep going back to the concept of forward thinking,” Potoff said. “We’re giving the student of tomorrow a chance to pursue what they might find intriguing. We want to help them realize what could be in their future.”

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