CLEMSON — A retired Greenville executive who has donated to organizations ranging from the Peace Center to First Presbyterian Church is turning his philanthropic attention to Clemson University, where he is providing the largest donation in history to the chemical and biomolecular engineering department.
William Sturgis and his wife, Martha Beth, are contributing $600,000 to create a distinguished professorship in the department. They plan to double their contribution in their will.
A faculty member who is selected for the professorship will be able to use funds generated by an endowment to support graduate and undergraduate students as they do research, learn about entrepreneurship and travel to national meetings where they can present their research to leaders in their field.
In a 37-year career, Sturgis served as executive vice president of worldwide packaging operations at W.R. Grace and president of its North American Cryovac Division.
Upon his retirement in 1997, Sturgis received the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest honor, and a commendation from the state House of Representatives. He and his wife stayed in Greenville after his retirement.
Sturgis said he and his wife established the professorship because they wanted to do something for chemical engineering at Clemson, where he got his start studying under influential professor Charles E. Littlejohn Jr.
“The quality of the professors really makes the quality of the graduates,” he said. “If you’ve got the money to attract the top professors, you’re going to attract a lot of people who want to major in that particular area and go on and do well.”
David Bruce, chair of the department, said it is important to bring in great faculty who will inspire students.
The Sturgis contribution “will let us retain great faculty that we already have and be a beacon to bring in new faculty to the department,” Bruce said.
An announcement on which faculty member will receive the professorship is expected soon.
Sturgis, who grew up on a dairy farm in Rock Hill, has a long history with Clemson. His class started with 41 chemical engineering majors and he remembers that 12 graduated.
He received his Bachelor of Science from Clemson in 1957 and later graduated from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard University.
Sturgis returned to Clemson as an alumnus, where he is an emeritus member of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences advisory board.
He previously served as president of the Clemson University Foundation at a time when the big issues were construction of the Madren Conference Center and the John E. Walker Sr. Golf Course.
He has also been a big supporter of packaging science at Clemson. In 1995, he was inducted into the Packaging Education Hall of Fame for starting the Clemson program. Sturgis donated lots of his time to launching the program and played a key role in steering a $2 million contribution for scholarships from Cryovac.
Sturgis began his engineering career by doing government contract work on airplane and rocket engines with Pratt & Whitney. What he really wanted at the time was a job in the paper business, which fit with the work he did in his senior thesis at Clemson, Sturgis said.
But he never got the paper job.
After about two years at Pratt & Whitney, Sturgis left and took a job with Cryovac when the company just was getting started.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m going to go to work with them and I’ll wait until I find the paper job that I want, then I’ll make a move,’” he said. “Well, I ended up staying with them for 37 years. Every time I thought it was about time to make a move, I’d get a raise and a promotion, and I just kept going.”
By the time Sturgis retired in 1997, he oversaw 16 plants around the world and about 18,000 employees, including 900 in Simpsonville alone, he said.
William and Martha Beth Sturgis have known each other since they were in the first grade. They started dating in the 11th grade at Rock Hill High School.
Martha Beth went to Winthrop University, majoring in elementary education, when William went to Clemson. They graduated on the same day in 1957.
“She has always been my partner,” William said. “When we needed to move somewhere, she was ready to pick up and go. She has always been 100 percent supportive.”
The couple has traveled the world together, setting foot on every continent except Antarctica. They have three sons, including twins, Randy and Rick, who are both Clemson graduates, and the youngest, Mark. Altogether, the couple has five grandsons and two granddaughters.
Martha Beth said she admires many traits in her husband, including that he is fair and that he had an open-door policy at Cryovac.
“We just celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary, so obviously I admire everything about him that I can admire,” she said. “He has been a wonderful husband, a wonderful provider, a wonderful father, a wonderful grandfather and, in June, he’s going to become a wonderful great-grandfather.”
They attribute the longevity of their relationship to commitment, understanding and communication.
In his philanthropic pursuits, Sturgis has been most involved at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Greenville, where he has served as deacon, elder and trustee, a position he has turned over to one of his sons.
He has also contributed to the Peace Center for the Performing Arts and served on its executive board. He has been involved in the Greenville Chamber of Commerce and been a member of the Downtown Rotary Club.
JoVanna King, senior associate vice president for development at Clemson, has worked with Sturgis for years and helped advise him on his latest contribution, officially titled the William B. “Bill” Sturgis, ‘57 & Martha Elizabeth “Martha Beth” Blackmon Sturgis Distinguished Professorship in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
“Bill understands the value of giving his time and treasure to his alma mater,” King said. “I am truly grateful and consider it a privilege to have worked with him all these years.”
The latest contribution includes a $500,000 endowment that is expected to generate investment returns that can be spent in accordance with the professorship. The remaining $100,000 provides five years of funding while the returns are accumulating.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said William and Martha Beth Sturgis are an inspiration.
“The college owes a heartfelt debt of gratitude to this couple for their tremendous generosity and visionary thinking,” Gramopadhye said. “In helping strengthen our faculty, they are helping shape the lives of students for generations to come.”
Written by Paul Alongi