It’s rare for one person to profoundly influence a generation of scientists. Robert “Bob” Eberly, for whom the Eberly College of Science is named, was one of those people. He could do so because of his hard work, wealth, love of science and learning, and the heartfelt feeling that Penn State was a place “with the great potential to do good, and he wanted to be involved with that,” as former Penn State President Graham Spanier once wrote.
Last year—2020—marked the 30th anniversary of the conferring of the Eberly name on the College of Science by the Penn State Board of Trustees. To understand the magnitude of the Eberly family’s storied gift to Penn State, it’s helpful to reflect on the person, what made him tick, and why he was so generous.
Bob Eberly was the first in his family to attend college. His father, Orville, worked in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania and used this background to become a business magnate in the energy and, later, banking sectors. Orville instilled the value of education in his son Bob, who came to Penn State in the fall of 1936 and graduated with a chemistry degree in 1939. Bob’s passion for Penn State was profound. On his 80th birthday he remarked, “Penn State cost me relatively nothing compared to the money I have made. Am I grateful? Yes, forever. If I paid it back thousands of times, I would still be in debt.”
“But it wasn’t about him,” said Rod Kirsch, Penn State’s senior vice president for development and alumni relations at the time of the gift. “He had the wealth to make these kinds of gifts, but he was just genuinely generous and wanted to help make others successful.”
“He believed if you could give someone a meaningful job, good benefits would flow from that,” said Bob’s eldest son, Bob Eberly Jr. “He had vision and a sense of responsibility, and the generosity of the Eberly Family Foundation is a reflection of that.”
Bob Jr., while reflecting on the naming of the Eberly College of Science, recalled visiting the president of another institution to which the foundation had made a gift, who suggested that the institution be renamed after the Eberly family. “That’s never been the motivator for us,” Bob Jr. said. “It was never about getting your name on a building. It was about helping other people have a better life. I’m certain my father was pleased that the college was named after our family, but I’m 100 percent confident that it was never a factor in his thinking.”
The Eberly Family Charitable Trust’s initial $10 million gift in 1986 supported a variety of scholarships and programs (see Eberly Impact: Eberly Family Chairs) and established eight named faculty chairs—one in each department (the computer science department today resides in the College of Information Sciences and Technology). This marked the first time in the history of higher education philanthropy that an academic college received, in a single gift, an endowed chair for each of its departments (see Eberly Impact: Postdoctoral Research Fellows).
At a formal naming ceremony held May 12, 1990, in conjunction with spring commencement exercises that year, the college was formally renamed as the Eberly College of Science. It distinguished Penn State as the first public research university in the United States to name its basic science college after a benefactor or philanthropist, according to a survey of institutions belonging to the Association of American Universities.
The generosity of the Eberly family has enabled the college to attract and retain faculty members of worldwide renown, who in turn generate higher levels of funding for research at the cutting edge of their fields and create opportunities for study and research that attract top graduate and undergraduate students. The college boasts 4 National Medal of Science recipients, 18 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 14 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and 60 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“The strong reputation of our college and the achievements of our teaching and research faculty owe a great deal to the Eberly Family Charitable Trust’s gift,” said Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “As the dean of the college, it is a tremendous privilege to have an endowed chair in each department. It has drawn exceptional people to our college and led to remarkable discoveries.”
In addition, the Eberly family’s considerable contributions include gifts to building funds for the Bryce Jordan Center and the Paterno Library addition, which includes the Eberly Family Special Collections Library—home to more than 200,000 printed volumes, more than 25 million archival records and manuscripts, and another million photographs, maps, prints, and audio-visual items—as well as for the construction of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (currently the world’s third largest, see Eberly Impact: The Hobby Eberly Telescope), to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and the Penn State College of Medicine, and to Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus. Today, these stand along with the Eberly College of Science as permanent testimonials to the vision and commitment of this generous family.