Nelson Willhite returned to Clemson University for the first time in nearly 20 years to announce that he is establishing a $100,000 endowment in the name of his former graduate advisor, John Gowdy.

The Dr. John N. Gowdy Endowed Fellowship supports South Carolina residents studying in the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Willhite, now a principal engineer at Nokia, said that when he was a masters student in the late 1980s, Gowdy helped him secure two fellowships and a teaching assistantship.

The financial help allowed Willhite to continue his studies, and the endowment named for Gowdy was a way of paying the opportunity forward, he said.

“I feel very fortunate that I have the means in which I am able to give back to the University and provide for other people that are in a similar position as what I was,” Willhite said.

Gowdy, who is an emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering, said having the endowment named after him was a tremendous honor and a complete surprise. He learned of the endowment in a surprise announcement at a lunch in Riggs Hall.

“It’s really appreciated that someone as capable as Nelson with his record of success and achievement is giving back to Clemson,” Gowdy said. “Certainly, I’m personally honored that he decided to assign my name to it.”

Willhite began his education at Clemson as an undergraduate in 1982, the year after the Tigers won their first football National Championship. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering in 1986 and went on to get his Master of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1989.

As a student, Willhite was “one of the best, and he was a good guy,” Gowdy recalled.

“You get to know the really good students best, and I got to know him quite well,” Gowdy said. “I’m not a bit surprised that he has had the success he’s had because he was so outstanding when he was here as a student.”

After graduation, Willhite went to work for NCR Corporation in Duluth, Georgia, developing cash registers and point-of-sale terminals.

“In 1996, I decided I wanted to go out to Silicon Valley because I was doing chip design, and that’s where a lot of the opportunities were and continue to be,” he said. “I went out there and moved into the networking space.”

Since then, Willhite has worked for several companies, doing chip design for networking equipment. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Willhite said that when he was a masters student,  he never knew the donors who made his financial assistance possible. He encouraged students who receive endowed scholarships and fellowships to connect with the people behind the giving.

Among those joining Willhite at a luncheon to celebrate the gift was Daniel Noneaker, chair of the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“Nelson Willhite’s endowment of the  Dr. John N. Gowdy Endowed Fellowship is tangible evidence of the positive impact that faculty mentorship has on the professional success of our students after graduation,” Noneaker said. “Mr. Willhite’s generosity will help ensure that future graduate students in ECE can benefit from the same kind of guidance at the formative stage of their careers.”