Children of Bill and Jo Weiss continue parents' legacy of giving

October 11, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.—If one were to list the Penn Staters who have extended a helping hand to fellow Nittany Lions through philanthropy, that list would be incomplete without William and Josephine Weiss. Bill, a leading donor, trustee and fundraising volunteer leader who died in 2016 at age 87, and Jo, Bill’s partner in life and philanthropy who carries on Bill’s memory today, have supported more than 216 students in earning Penn State degrees through scholarships.

Bill and Jo Weiss

Jo and Bill Weiss pictured in 1987.

IMAGE: Weiss family

“Bill and Jo recognized that Penn State had changed their lives for the better, and they wanted to provide the same opportunity for young people with limited means,” said Rod Kirsch, who maintained a close relationship with the Weisses throughout his 20-year tenure as Penn State’s vice president (and ultimately senior vice president) for development and alumni relations.

The couple instilled the same commitment to giving back in their three children -- Sue Miller, Dave Weiss and Steve Weiss -- who recently made two gifts through their family’s foundation that will yield a total impact of $4.5 million and further their parents’ legacy of creating opportunity for Penn State students.

Bill and Jo first met as Penn State students in 1948 after Bill glimpsed Jo across a crowded room at a fraternity party, and the couple married soon after they graduated (Jo in 1950 with a degree in arts and letters, and Bill in 1951 with a degree in industrial engineering). A first-generation college student from the small town of Big Run, Pennsylvania, Bill used his degree in industrial engineering as the foundation for a successful career in the telecommunications industry. He rose through the executive ranks at Bell Telephone Company in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois before becoming chairman and CEO of the Chicago-based Ameritech Corporation.

Despite a demanding professional life, Bill always made time for his alma mater, serving as a lead volunteer for the University’s first modern fundraising campaign, “The Campaign for Penn State” (1984-1990), and as vice chair for the “Grand Destiny” campaign (1997-2003).

“Bill had high standards for himself, his family and the organizations of which he was a part, and he believed that philanthropy was the key to making Penn State a place where excellence thrived,” said Kirsch.

Bill and Jo relished seeing the impact of their own philanthropy, with the crown jewel being the Breakthrough Scholarship Program. Launched in 1995 with significant conceptual input from Bill, the program benefits 24 students annually, half from the College of Engineering and half from the College of the Liberal Arts (Bill and Jo’s respective academic homes), with first preference for first-generation college students. A central purpose of the program is to promote cross-disciplinary exchange by bringing together students from different academic worlds. Provided they continue to meet the program’s academic requirements, scholars receive support for the entirety of their Penn State education. The support amounts to half the cost of in-state tuition, one of the most generous scholarship packages the University offers.

Through the years, Bill and Jo took great pride in seeing the Breakthrough Scholarship Program foster the success of its beneficiaries, whom they referred to as “our kids,” and for whom they frequently traveled from their home in Chicago to meet on campus.

Dana Cliffarelli, a fourth-year student in Penn State’s Integrated Bachelor and Master of Architectural Engineering program, is one of the many Penn State students who has benefited from the Breakthrough Scholarship Program. She said, “The Breakthrough Scholarship Program has enabled me to pursue a five-year major as well as have the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Rome for a summer. Neither of these opportunities would have been possible were it not for this program.”

When Bill and Jo were named the University’s Philanthropists of the Year in 2005, Jo said of the Breakthrough Scholars, "As we've learned about their career aspirations and personal goals, they have become part of our extended family."

Kirsch recalled how Bill and Jo loved watching the Breakthrough Scholars mature into young men and women, get jobs and go on to graduate school. “They just beamed with pride whenever they spent time with them,” he said.

As they witnessed the impact of their philanthropy and thought about the future of the program, Bill and Jo took steps to ensure the tradition of giving would continue from one generation of Weisses to the next. The couple established the William L. and Josephine B. Weiss Family Foundation in 1986 to involve their three children -- Sue, Dave and Steve -- in their family’s giving, and to ensure the longevity of the programs and causes they cared about, including the Breakthrough Scholarship Program.

Today, Sue, Dave and Steve serve as stewards of the legacy Bill and Jo built at Penn State. Through the foundation, they recently made a landmark, $2.5 million commitment to allow the Breakthrough Scholarship Program to continue in perpetuity, thus fulfilling Bill and Jo’s longstanding wishes for the program. The foundation’s commitment leveraged $1.25 million in University matching funds through the recently concluded Leadership Gift Matching Program, a featured giving opportunity of the University’s current fundraising campaign, “A Greater Penn State for Twenty-First Century Excellence.”

Inspired by Jo’s desire to further honor her late husband’s life and legacy, the foundation has made an additional commitment of $200,000 to establish a new scholarship in Bill’s memory. The W.L. Weiss Memorial Engineering Scholarship will support incoming first-year students in the College of Engineering who have financial need and who demonstrate outstanding academic and co-curricular credentials, with first preference given to first-generation college students. The gift leveraged a 1:1 University match through the recently concluded First-Time Endowed Scholarship Donor Matching Program, another featured giving opportunity of the “Greater Penn State” campaign.

“We are thrilled to extend the Breakthrough Scholarship Program through this new commitment,” said Sue Miller, who serves as the liaison between the Weiss family and the Breakthrough Scholarship Program and frequently travels to Happy Valley to host brunches for the scholars. “Our parents were always incredibly proud of the Breakthrough Scholars and their accomplishments through the years. Now, Dave, Steve and I look forward to seeing the next generation of Breakthrough Scholars earn Penn State degrees and forge successful careers and lives.”

Sue, a retired teacher, lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and her mother, now 90, lives nearby in the Landis Homes community. Dave resides in Holly Springs, North Carolina, where—in addition to building and selling houses—he is active in his local Rotary organization and serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Home of North Carolina. Steve lives in Carol Stream, Illinois, and is the owner of an Asian product sourcing business working primarily with mid-size internet retail merchants.

Through their recent gifts, Sue, Dave and Steve are putting into action the words of their late father.

“The greater our success in this world, the more we owe to the community that made it possible,” Bill said in a commencement address to the College of Engineering’s graduating class of 1990. “An occasional gift to charity is not enough. I believe commitment and personal involvement is an obligation throughout our lives. But more than that, I believe it broadens our perspective and nourishes our spirit.”

These gifts from the William L. and Josephine B. Weiss Family Foundation will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit







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Last Updated October 11, 2018