Penn State mourns alumni leader and philanthropist Verne Willaman

June 29, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State and the Eberly College of Science have lost a leading advocate and supporter with the passing of Verne M. Willaman, a class of 1951 graduate and retired chairman and president of Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation. Willaman, whose philanthropy and volunteer leadership helped the University’s life sciences and molecular biology programs to gain international prominence, died recently at his home in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“Verne’s vision of the University as a community of discovery guided his extraordinary support and service to Penn State over more than four decades,” said Daniel Larson, the Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “Throughout his lifetime, his commitment to bridging scientific disciplines and boundaries helped to shape our mission as an institution, and his legacy will continue to inspire new generations of our faculty and students to the highest levels of achievement.”

In addition to the dean’s chair held by Larson, Willaman’s gifts to Penn State included endowed faculty chairs in the life sciences and molecular biology as well as professorships, graduate fellowships, and support for a range of projects and programs. In honor of his parents, who operated a farm near Greenville, Pa., and encouraged their son’s belief in the importance of education, he established the Prescott and Mary Willaman Scholarships to assist undergraduates with financial need and a proven academic record. He also served as a volunteer leader in Penn State's fundraising campaigns during the 1980s and 1990s. Penn State honored Willaman as a Distinguished Alumnus, the highest recognition it can bestow on its graduates, in 1993. In 2004, the University named the Willaman Gateway to the Sciences, located between the Chemistry and Life Sciences Buildings, in his honor.

“Penn State’s leadership in the sciences would not be possible without Verne’s leadership as a supporter and a volunteer,” said Rodney P. Kirsch, senior vice president for development and alumni relations. “Those of us who had the honor of working with him during his many years of service to the University will remember him as one of Penn State’s most passionate and thoughtful advocates and as a gracious, humble, and caring friend. We relied upon his advice and his inspiring belief in the University’s potential for greatness, and Verne remained loyal to the alma mater he loved until the very end of his life.”

Born Aug. 20, 1928, in Greenville, Pa., Willaman graduated from Penn State in 1951 with a degree in biological chemistry and then served a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Afterward, in 1954, he joined Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation in New Jersey and rose through the executive ranks to become president in 1969 and chairman in 1976. He became a director and member of the executive committee of Johnson & Johnson in 1977 and retired in 1988. Among his professional activities was service on the board of directors and the executive committee of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and the board of directors of the American Federation of Pharmaceutical Education.

Willaman was active in civic affairs as well, chairing the Somerset County Heart Fund Drive and serving as a trustee of the Somerset County Medical Center. He was a founding member of the Middlesex County Multiple Sclerosis Society and also served on the National Council of Crime and Delinquency and as a trustee of Marcus J. Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Arizona.

In addition to the formal need-based scholarships Willaman established at Penn State, he assisted many students throughout his life with their college financial needs. He also provided substantial financial support to numerous other charitable causes supporting the arts, sciences, veterans, churches, libraries and school programs.

Willaman is survived by his wife, Betty Willaman; his two children, Mark Merritt Willaman and Wendy Willaman-Renda; stepchildren, Keri Caserios and Kindi Freygang; three grandchildren; a sister-in-law, Dorothy Willaman, and two nephews, John Willaman and Dwight Willaman.

A celebration of his life will take place at 2 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2012, at the Varian Ranch Club House and Gardens located at 2060 Varian Circle in Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, friends consider charitable gifts that honor his spirit of giving.

  • Verne Willaman, a class of 1951 graduate and retired chairman and president of Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation, whose philanthropy and volunteer leadership helped Penn State's life sciences and molecular biology programs to gain international prominence.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated October 17, 2019