It was a time of tears and joy, remembrance and renewal, as John Niblack and Oklahoma State University created a new endowed professorship at OSU during ceremonies April 30 .
Niblack and his wife, Heidi, donated $250,000 to fund the OSU Robert J. Sirny Memorial Endowed Professorship in Agricultural Biochemistry.
"I can't think of anyone outside my parents who played such an informative role in my life as did (Robert Sirny)," Niblack said. "He was very kind and giving as a mentor. He would teach you, but wasn't afraid to let you experiment and develop your own scientific interests."
A 1960 OSU graduate, Niblack is executive vice president of Pfizer, Inc., the fifth largest drug company in the world.
He worked and studied under Sirny first as a Tulsa high school student in a summer job program at OSU, then as an OSU chemistry major. Upon graduation, he thought about becoming a university professor like his mentor.
The burgeoning new focus of molecular biology proved a crossroads in Niblack's life. It showed him the effect his occupation could have on improving the lives of millions of people.
"It's nice to see science used to create new medicines that can help prolong people's lives and make the bearing of diseases easier," Niblack said.
He joined Pfizer, Inc., in 1967, starting a career that would see him direct research and create drugs used to battle viral illnesses, cancer and autoimmune disorders.
When Ron Area of the OSU Foundation and Milford Jenkins, director of development, OSU division of agricultural sciences and natural resources, met with Niblack a few years ago on the subject of company donations to OSU's gift-giving campaign, Niblack took it personally. It got Niblack to thinking about what he himself might do to honor the man who had helped start him on his career path.
Jeanne Short of the OSU Foundation began working with Niblack to set up a personal endowment in the name of Robert J. Sirny. Niblack's gift will be a permanent endowment. Only the interest earnings will be used to support the activities of the Sirny professorship.
"The ultimate accolade is to have a student go on and succeed after graduation, then say, 'You made a difference in my life.' That's what this professorship celebrates," said James Halligan, OSU president
Jim Blair, head, OSU department of biochemistry and molecular biology, said the endowed professorship should always be held by an individual who exemplifies Sirny's qualities.
Sirny was known for his commitment and ability to blend cutting-edge research efforts into the classroom environment, thereby exposing students to the highest possible degree of educational experience and skill building.
"Bob loved teaching, he loved his students," said Sirny's widow Dorothy. "That's the greatest thing a teacher can do. Sometimes, I swear it was like he invented his students himself, they played such an important role in his life."
Ulrich Melcher, OSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, was announced as the first recipient of the Sirny professorship.
"Everyone in our department strives to contribute to the experience of our students, both in the classroom and in the laboratory," Melcher said. "I'm thrilled because I really didn't expect to be named the first recipient."
The Sirny professorship and Melcher's appointment must be approved formally by the Oklahoma A&M Board of Regents. The next board meeting is scheduled for June 18.
Private donors play a vital role in providing resources that enable OSU to reach the highest pinnacles of excellence in its teaching, research and extension programs, Jenkins said.
"It's not solely major corporations giving millions of dollars that allow the university to meet its goals and commitments," Jenkins said. "It's people who see the value of what we do, who understand the contributions the university makes and who want to ensure those life-changing contributions continue."
News release authored by Donald Stotts
Published in the Stillwater NewsPress 9 May, 1999, page B3
Photo from Agriculture at OSU, Spring/Summer 1999, page 12