Penn State mourns philanthropist and alumni leader William L. Weiss

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.—Penn State has lost an alumnus whose philanthropy and service spanned many decades and many areas across the University. William L. Weiss, a 1951 Penn State graduate and the retired chairman and CEO of telecommunications pioneer Ameritech, died on Oct. 10 in Sarasota, Florida, at the age of 87.

As a member of Penn State’s Board of Trustees and a longtime fundraising volunteer, Weiss was recognized as a leader committed to creating opportunities for the University’s students and faculty. With his wife and fellow Penn State graduate, Josephine Berry Weiss, a 1950 Penn State graduate, he established endowments that continue to support education and research in the colleges of Engineering and the Liberal Arts, as well as student-athletes, the University Libraries, and other programs.

“Bill Weiss will be remembered by the University community as a Penn Stater of extraordinary spirit and a leader of extraordinary vision,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “He used his own Penn State education as the departure point for a career that helped to shape one of our country’s most important industries. Through the generosity that he and Jo have shown to our students and faculty, he has ensured that new generations of Penn Staters will be able to pursue their own ambitions with equal determination and success.”

A native of Big Run, Pennsylvania, Weiss earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Penn State in 1951. Soon after graduation, he married Josephine Berry, a 1950 graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts, and began work for the Bell Telephone Company. Later that year, he started two years of service as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. In 1953, he returned to Bell in Pennsylvania and rose through the company’s management to become a vice president in 1973. He held executive positions with Wisconsin Bell, Indiana Bell, and Illinois Bell before being named chairman and chief executive officer of Ameritech Corporation in 1984. The Chicago-based company provided phone service to more than 12 million customers, primarily in the Midwest, as well as cellular phone service, Internet access, paging, cable television, and home security services. Weiss retired from Ameritech in 1994; in 1999, the company was acquired by SBC Communications, now AT&T.

Weiss was among the first Penn State alumni to recognize the importance of philanthropy to the future of the University, and he was a member of the executive committee for the institution’s first comprehensive fundraising effort, "The Campaign for Penn State." After his retirement, he committed himself to further service on behalf of the University, serving as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1994 to 2003 and as a vice chair of the "Grand Destiny" campaign from 1996 to 2003. William and Josephine Weiss set an example for innovative philanthropy with several important endowments created during these years, and their giving bridged their interests in the humanities and engineering.

Established in 1995, the Breakthrough Scholarship Program assists undergraduates with both exceptional ability and financial need, with first preference to those who are the first in their family to pursue a degree, in the colleges of Engineering and the Liberal Arts. The William L. and Josephine Berry Weiss Graduate Scholars Program was created in 1997 to encourage graduate students in these same colleges to explore their shared research interests. The Ameritech Foundation endowed a faculty chair in information and communications technology to honor Weiss, and the couple created a parallel chair, named for Josephine Berry Weiss, in the humanities. They have also supported the Center for Sports Medicine and other programs across Penn State.

“I had the privilege of working closely with Bill on Penn State business and knew him very well. He possessed an agile mind, a keen intellect, a strong moral compass, and a tremendously big heart,” said Rodney P. Kirsch, senior vice president emeritus for development and alumni relations. “When his telecommunications career took him to the national and even international stage, he never forgot his roots in rural central Pennsylvania or his university. Bill and Jo designed an exemplary scholarship program at Penn State. It was a model that I would often cite when advising other donors. Most importantly, the Weisses made a point to meet regularly and correspond frequently with their scholarship recipients. Bill was a role model to not only our students, but to many of our most engaged alumni volunteers.”

Weiss’ commitment to Penn State was recognized on several occasions: In 1986, he was named a Distinguished Alumnus, the highest honor offered by the University to its graduates, and he was recognized as Philanthropist of the Year, along with Josephine Weiss, in 2005. They were also members of the Elm Circle of the Mount Nittany Society, which recognizes the institutions’ most generous donors. Beyond Penn State, Weiss was celebrated for his civic involvement and leadership, especially in the Chicago area. Weiss was a senior trustee at Northwestern University and a life trustee of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. He was inducted into the Chicago Business Hall of Fame and held honorary degrees from Purdue University, DePaul University, and Knox College. The Weisses continued their civic and philanthropic engagement upon moving to Sarasota, Florida, and they were recognized as Doctors of Philanthropy for their contributions to the Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

“Our father believed that success comes with an obligation to give back to the communities which have supported that success,” said a statement from the couple's children, Susan L. Weiss Miller, David W. Weiss and Steven P. Weiss. “We are proud of the difference that our parents have made in so many lives, including those of Penn State students, and we hope that his legacy at the University will continue to inspire and support the Penn State community for many years to come.”

In addition to his wife, Josephine, and his children, Weiss is survived by five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Those wishing to honor Weiss are encouraged to make memorial contributions to the First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota or the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation.

 

 

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Last Updated February 15, 2017