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Grateful graduate gives Penn State $20 million

Sunday, April 25, 1999

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mercer County native Verne M. Willaman figured he owed something to his alma mater, Penn State University. So, he paid off with a $20 million donation, a tie for second-largest gift in school history, the university announced yesterday.

Willaman -- who grew up in Greenville, graduated from Penn State 48 years ago and went on to head the former Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. -- directed that a large share of the money be funneled into Penn State's science programs. The rest of the money will bolster contributions he previously made, such as a fund for scholarships based on need.

Willaman has been a regular on Penn State's list of benefactors. Counting the latest gift, he has contributed more than $27 million to the university, a Penn State spokesman said.

Retired now, Willaman splits his time between San Luis Obispo, Calif. and Vail, Colo. He could not be reached for comment yesterday but said in a statement released by Penn State that his parents were his inspiration. His mother had been a teacher for 40 years.

"I feel I owe Penn State something for all the good things it did for me," he said. "My training in chemistry was excellent and gave me a solid foundation for my career."

That career led to the chairmanship at Ortho, now Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals, in 1976. He retired in 1988.

"He's a genuinely modest individual," Michael Bezilla, Penn State director of communications and special projects, said yesterday. "He doesn't seek the limelight. That's not what motivates his philanthropy."

The gift announcement came 18 hours after Penn State publicly kicked off its largest-ever fund drive: a campaign that university President Graham Spanier said is aimed at raising $1 billion by 2003.

It takes a big check to get anywhere near the top of Penn State's benefactors list. But Willaman's gift is outranked only by $30 million donated in 1997 by former university trustee chairman William Schreyer, ex-chairman of Merrill Lynch, and his wife, Joan. The money endowed a university honors college.

Willaman is tied for second-place on the list with an anonymous donor who contributed $20 million to Penn State Erie.

An estimated $3 million of Willaman's contribution will endow the dean's chair at Penn State's Eberly College of Science, part of the university that includes its chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and astronomy department. The endowment sets up a perpetual fund to pay for the dean's position and allows the dean seed money for research projects that are still in the fledgling stage.

"I've always been fascinated by the potential of scientific discovery to improve the lives of people around the world," Willaman said in a statement published by Penn State in connection with its fund drives.

Willaman also bolstered support for two faculty chairs, positions for which both the faculty salary and associated research money are paid through his endowment faculty. He also increased the money in scholarships designed to help needy students from his native Mercer County attend Penn State.

With the additional money, aid will be extended to students beyond Mercer County.

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