$1.2 million gift for faculty support provides insurance for the future, says Nebraska engineering grad

The grad hopes to give back to the professors who educated and counseled him.

First generation college graduate and German descendent Wil Hergenrader practically grew up on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus in the 1930s and 40s. He’d walk through campus from his Russian Bottoms neighborhood just north of campus to explore, always ending up at his favorite spot: the College of Engineering.

His comfort with the university and longtime interest in mechanical engineering—thanks largely to helping his dad at a one-man auto garage on North 10th Street—helped make it a natural decision to study engineering at Nebraska, where he graduated in 1954.

Hergenrader, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., said it’s time to give back in some way to the professors who educated and counseled him and to the state where he grew up. He and his wife, Sally, have gifted $1.2 million to the University of Nebraska Foundation for a permanently endowed chair to benefit the mechanical engineering department forever.

“Because Nebraska was my birthplace, there’s no question about my interest in supporting those who follow, who choose to go to the University of Nebraska and receive the finest education they can get and afford,” Hergenrader said. “I’d like to do my part to help secure a professor and give him or her the tools to work and stay modern and contemporary in this field.”

Of the lasting nature of an endowment, which provides consistent and perpetual support to the university, Hergenrader said it’s similar to insurance for higher education. “It provides insurance for the university, so it’s able to provide that kind of skill and capability and outstanding leadership over a period of years,” he said. “It’s a lasting thing, and that’s why it’s important.”

UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said this gift is especially appreciated, as it helps meet a priority of the university’s Campaign for Nebraska: Unlimited Possibilities to increase the university’s ability to support its teachers and researchers.

“I am grateful to the Hergenraders for their generosity,” Perlman said. “Their gift gives support to efforts to attract and retain top faculty members and academic leadership for the department. The Hergenrader faculty awards will translate into research and innovation, as well as quality experiences for students working with these faculty members. I applaud their vision and commitment to the mechanical engineering department.”

Wil Hergenrader, who owned and managed a Cummins distributorship, sang praises for the Nebraska education he received. “There are a number of professors who still stand out in my mind,” he said. “They were really some great people who I have great respect for. I hope you get that kind of instruction and loyalty and dedication to education today.”

The Wilmer J. and Sally L. Hergenrader Chair in Mechanical Engineering will be used each year by the university to provide one or more endowed chair awards in the College of Engineering. Recipients will receive a stipend for salary, research or academic program support. Awards will be based on a recipient’s teaching or research ability and academic promise.

After graduating from Nebraska, Hergenrader served in the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where he also completed an MBA degree in 1957 at Ohio State University. He met Sally on a blind date in 1954 in Burlington, Vt., where she lived and he had gone for a summer job. They moved to Memphis in 1972 from Columbus, Ind. Aside from summer jobs with General Electric, Hergenrader said he devoted his entire career to Cummins Inc., which designs and manufactures diesel engines.

The Hergenraders have also been longtime supporters of the Sheldon Museum of Art at UNL through gifts of art. Devoted collectors of contemporary art, the museum featured a 1997 exhibition of their collection, including donated works.

The University of Nebraska Foundation is an independent, nonprofit organization that has connected the dreams and passions of donors to the mission of the university for the past 75 years. In 2010, donors designated more than $136 million in gifts to scholarships, academic programs, medical research and other priorities at the university. The foundation’s current $1.2 billion fundraising initiative, the Campaign for Nebraska: Unlimited Possibilities, concludes in 2014. For more information, visit nufoundation.org.

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