In the 1970s, a University of Dubuque supporter stated, "Integrity is essential to all other considerations and this principle of mankind should be the Golden Rule... Americans must concern themselves with the basic questions of what they can do for their fellow man and at the same time assist each person to help himself or herself."

This man's name was Lester G. Wendt. Two decades later, Lester's son and daughter-in-law, Richard L. and Nancy J. Wendt, brought his dream to reality.

In April of 2004, in line with the University of Dubuque Board of Trustees' 1998 Mission Vision Action, Richard and Nancy Wendt endowed a large fund to the University for the establishment of the Lester G. and Michael Lester Wendt Character Initiative. Named in honor of the late Lester Wendt, and for Richard and Nancy's son Michael, who died in 2003, the Initiative sought to create a campus-wide culture of character at the University. Specifically, the initiative focused on the values of truthfulness, fairness, honesty, and the Golden Rule. The intended role of the Wendt Character Initiative appears in its mission statement:

Centered in the University's Mission and Values and consonant with its Reformed Christian identity, the Initiative engages the university community in a cooperative and spirited effort to foster intellectual understanding of and personal commitment to leading lives of purpose and excellent moral character.

Under the interim direction of Dr. Carlyle Haaland, the Initiative commenced in the fall of 2004. The six main elements of the initiative included the Wendt Center for Character Education, Faculty Support, Wendt Character Scholarships, the Michael Lester Wendt Lecture Series, the Wendt Library Collection, and the Dubuque Opportunity Scholars. From the beginning, the Initiative received strong administrative and faculty support, weaving its way into the University's framework.

In fall 2006, Dr. Paula Carlson became the Director. Dr. Carlson furthered the Initiative's reach through implementing new practices, such as dinners to recognize students' service learning and establishing an annual Wendt Vocation Lecture. She also helped implement the "Thinking Economics" curriculum for World View II seminar students. Dr. Carlson was joined by Dr. John Hatch, who became the program's first appointed Wendt Professor from 2008-11.

Dr. Henry Pitman followed as Director of the Wendt Character Initiative in the fall of 2008. During this era, Dr. Pitman and the Initiative's staff created a workshop for faculty and administrative staff about educating on character, helped develop the University's Diamond Initiative, and explained the Wendt Character Initiative and its implications for all of campus. Dr. Pitman and Dr. Hatch also worked together on racial and economic class reconciliation events.

In the summer of 2012, Dr. Annalee Ward succeeded Dr. Pitman as Director of the Wendt Character Initiative. Dr. Ward instituted faculty/staff book discussions on character, orientations to the Initiative for faculty, staff, and students, newsletters, and a journal. Dr. Ward has also helped re-focus the Initiative on the values of integrity, justice, and compassion, building the Wendt Character Scholars' yearly curriculum around those themes.

In 2023-24, the Wendt Character Initiative celebrated its 20th anniversary. Read about the milestone in this article, review highlights of its 20 years, or watch this video for a glimpse of the Wendt Character Scholars Program over the decades.