By John Perney
Leave it to Richard Vitek to turn to chemistry to briefly sum up his Albion College experience.
“Professors, students just all bonded together very well,” says the retired chemical researcher and highly successful entrepreneur. “They did a lot of things together, and there is a tremendous camaraderie that sticks.”
The characteristics of that camaraderie usually evolve and deepen over time, and for 1956 alumni Richard and Marilyn Young Vitek (right), the year of their 60th Albion reunion was the right time to toast those connections through what Richard calls “a program of possibility”—a group of particular gifts to the College that carry immediate impact.
The Viteks’ generosity to the College had already been substantial: their major gift funded the technology teaching auditorium (Norris 102) in the Science Complex project more than a decade ago; they had created endowed scholarships in chemistry and biology in Richard’s and Marilyn’s names, respectively; and they also had given to the President’s discretionary fund as well as unrestricted gifts.
Now, just in 2015-2016, the couple has given:
• Nearly $86,000 to renovate the long dormant greenhouse in Olin Hall and create the Young Greenhouse and Marilyn Young Vitek, ’56, Atrium Study Lounge;
• $50,000 to establish the Richard K. Vitek, ’56, FURSCA Endowment, benefiting the College’s Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity;
• $30,000 for a thermogravimetric analyzer (TGA) for the Chemistry Department (the instrument measures the weight change in a sample as a function of heating the sample);
• More than $18,000 to the Biology Department for analytical supplies and imaging equipment from Fotodyne, the Hartland, Wisconsin-based company founded by Richard more than 30 years ago that was the first enterprise dedicated to the manufacture and marketing of laboratory and scientific instruments for the separation, visualization, and analysis of DNA;
• And more than $17,500 to the Physics Department, which coupled from additional funds from the College’s Information Technology Office will create a designated “IT floor” for physics in Palenske Hall.
• Additionally, a gift of two original 1970s works from American landscape painter Robert William Wood to the Art and Art History Department is being discussed.
Concerning the science department gifts, Dick mentions rather humbly that “small needs are often overlooked, and we wanted to help some of the departments with some of their needs.”
Similarly, Marilyn, whose degree is in home economics, adds about the greenhouse project: “My Dad loved gardening and his greenhouse. That was his life. It sounded like a really good project to us.”
Forty years ago, in 1976, a gift from Marilyn’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward J.F. Young (who had connections to two legendary Britons: coach Dale Sprankle and Admission’s Frank Bonta, ’49) made possible the Young Greenhouses attached to Robinson Hall. The facility—consisting of fern, mesophytic, cacti, and tropical rooms—was relocated to Olin during Robinson’s 1990s renovation but not used to its full potential. Now, the Young Greenhouse will grow landscaping plants for use campus-wide, allowing not only for student hands-on experiences with faculty and staff, but also for significant cost savings, as those plants up until now usually had been purchased by the College at retail.
Adjacent to the greenhouse, the Vitek Atrium (right) has already become the popular multidisciplinary collaboration and study space, conducive to reflective learning, that the couple envisioned.
“We are thrilled that you have decided to renovate this area,” wrote Andy Boyan, assistant professor of communication studies and faculty liaison for Olin Hall, in a letter to the Viteks. “With your generosity … we will be able to showcase Olin Hall as a place where learning and student life happens side by side.”
In a letter thanking the Viteks for the TGA, associate professor of chemistry Kevin Metz wrote that prior to the gift, his students’ research had been limited and dependent on his access to a TGA in Ireland through a separate arrangement. “Your gift will allow my students and me to push our research efforts forward in a more consistent manner and, more importantly, will allow my students to learn this valuable technique for themselves,” Metz wrote.
Indeed, for Richard, the importance of developing skills in the lab as an undergraduate was a key factor in the new FURSCA Endowment, which will have an award preference for projects in environmental chemistry. “Albion College gave me tremendous knowledge in my field,” he says. “Because of the educational training I received at Albion, I was well prepared to go on to graduate school, and from there develop an excellent career in chemistry and biochemistry.”
Richard’s work impacted several industries. He collaborated with the Coast Guard to develop a methodology to identify and inspect ships suspected of causing oil spills. Using thin-layer and gas chromatography, he successfully identified and quantified dangerous levels of poisonous aflatoxins in commercial peanut butter. And he also discovered that previous testing mechanisms for arsenic in food products, particularly California wines, were insufficient, prompting action from the Environmental Protection Agency.
When it comes to impact, Richard deftly shifts the focus to his Albion professors who made a liberal arts difference, especially Chemistry’s Albert Monk and Physics’ Howard Pettersen. “Dr. Pettersen invited us to his home on occasion, and we just talked about physics,” he says. “He’d play Beethoven and taught us how music was tied into mathematics.”
Yet Richard and Marilyn firmly acknowledge the rewards they have experienced in their support of student learning, which eclipses $570,000 across three decades of giving.
“It’s always been our wish to help students,” Marilyn says. “We get wonderful letters from students when they receive their scholarship. It’s fascinating to read them and find out that they truly appreciate it. We know the expenses for college have just skyrocketed, and so many of them say that with family circumstances they just would not be able to go to Albion without that extra support.”
The Viteks will make the trip to Albion from Florida to celebrate their 60th reunion at Homecoming in October, which will include a reception at the Young Greenhouse and Vitek Atrium (right). But forgive the Illinois natives if they sneak in an extra “happy 60th anniversary” during the weekend—Marilyn and Richard were married two weeks after graduating from Albion, and they easily recall how it all began.
“I was studying for a final, and I needed to go to the student center in Baldwin to have a Coke and wake up a little bit,” says Richard, describing his freshman-year memory. “I went down there, and I saw one person sitting by himself. We started talking about chemistry and physics, and he pulled a picture out of his wallet, which I thought was very unusual. He said it was his sister, and I realized it was a girl I had seen outside the physics building every Tuesday and Thursday.”
“I remember the story,” says Marilyn, whose brother Bob Young, ’55, just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “The first date we had was the play Androcles and the Lion.”
The George Bernard Shaw work proved to be just the opening act of the Viteks’ long-running association with Albion. In 1985, their youngest daughter, Evelyn, graduated with honors; now, the couple’s gifts in 2015-16 represent another milestone.
“We feel very fortunate that we are able to do this, to further the exceptional educational programs for Albion students,” Marilyn says. “And we will continue to support Albion in this endeavor.”
This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 edition of Advancing Albion.