University Celebrates Retired Physics Professor With Endowed Scholarship

If the Physics Department had a family tree framed on its wall, it would have just four branches.

That’s not to say the department hasn’t grown and flourished in its 111-year existence. There are countless examples of successful alumni who have gone onto careers at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or have become successful engineers, biophysicists, and technicians.

But only four physics professors — including three NWU alums — have served as department chairs. J.C. Jensen, a 1908 graduate, was the university’s first Physics Department chair. Walter French, a 1948 graduate and former student of Jensen, took over in 1952. Then followed William Wehrbein, a former student of French. Wehrbein graduated from NWU in 1970, started teaching physics at NWU in 1981, and took over as department chair in 1985.

“It took me a while to feel comfortable calling my colleagues by their first names,” said Wehrbein. “But it felt good realizing that the faculty knew me and trusted me and weren’t looking over my shoulder waiting for me to screw up.”

Since 1996, the Physics Department has been led by Bob Fairchild. He isn’t an alum, but is married to one.

The former and current department chairs gathered at homecoming this fall to celebrate a new scholarship endowed in Walter French’s name. It took one alumnus to ask why a physics scholarship was not endowed for French, who taught at NWU for 37 years. That alumnus made a donation and then asked other physics and chemistry alums to join him in establishing a scholarship. Their initial goal was to raise $25,000.

John Greving, Vice President for Advancement, announced at the homecoming celebration that the scholarship totaled nearly $60,000. Earnings from the Dr. Walter French Endowed Scholarship Fund will be awarded as an academic scholarship to a physics major each year.

“One of the iconic experiences that students have at Nebraska Wesleyan is the experiences they have with their faculty,” said Greving. “And Walter French is certainly a fine example of that iconic experience.”

The Physics Department’s long history can be traced not only by the stories of four department chairs, but in a tattered book containing the names of all Sigma Pi Sigma, an honorary for outstanding physics students. French was responsible for starting the honorary while a junior at NWU.

“Every member has signed it,” Fairchild said while carefully turning the yellowed pages of signatures dating back to 1947. “There’s a lot of history to be told here.”

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Bob Fairchild (left) and Bill Wehrbein (right) visit with Walter French at a recent reception in his honor.
Retired physics professor Walter French waves to the crowd during a reception celebrating an endowed scholarship in his name.
The Sigma Pi Sigma membership book includes names of students dating back to 1947.