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Marilyn Sommers: A ‘welcome’ reminder inspires memorial scholarship

Fall, in the unique rhythm of academic life, is a season of beginnings. Even as the sun declines and nature recedes toward winter, universities are shaking off the summer slumber and preparing for a new academic year. Everything is clean, and paint is fresh, and new textbooks, with spines yet unbroken, are in neatly piled stacks. In the fall, the university is full of potential and stories yet to be written.

Marilyn Sommers

During a fall visit to the West Lafayette campus in 1992 with his son David, Joseph Sommers (MA’68) heard two words that gave him a feeling of comfort, and he realized the next stage of his son’s life was about to begin.

At a reception held that weekend for prospective students and parents, Joe was asked by an attending dean what his affiliation with Purdue was. He responded that he received his master’s degree from Purdue. The dean shook his hand and said, “Welcome home!” So struck by the dean’s compassion, Joe realized that he had one more important thing to do.

Two and a half years prior to the campus visit, Joe had been diagnosed with a terminal heart disease and, at the age of 48, was facing the painful truth that he was not going to live much longer. Following the diagnosis, he began setting the wheels in motion to put things in order.

His ultimate goal was to prepare his family for their life after his death. He had signed in advance all the important paperwork that he could and left a document he entitled “My Final Thoughts” outlining everything his wife, Marilyn, would need, including written e-mails and voice mails she would send to his office, their community, and the newspapers. She referred to it as her bible. Knowing David had settled on Purdue to pursue a degree in restaurant management, he had that one last task to complete.

Sometime during the seven months between that fall visit and his death, Joe, without the knowledge of his family, sent a letter to then Purdue President Steven C. Beering and Dean of Students Betty Nelson, explaining his condition and asking what types of support Purdue offered to students who had recently lost a parent. Two weeks after Joe’s death, Marilyn received a call from President Beering inquiring about Joe’s condition. When she explained he had just recently died, President Beering was silent for a time, then asked if David was still coming to Purdue. Marilyn said, “definitely yes,” and he said that he would like to arrange a meeting between Marilyn, his office, and the dean of students.

Betty M. Nelson, Purdue University dean of students emerita, says, “I remember the concern Mr. Sommers had about his son’s Purdue experience without a father. As a college student myself without a father, I felt especially sensitive to David’s new challenges and the absence of that wise and trusted person with whom he could consult.”

After their meeting, Marilyn was assured that David would receive all the support he needed to get him successfully through this difficult period. “Throughout his freshman year, I received messages apprising me of his adjustment and assurance that he was making it,” she says.

“The Purdue campus can seem large and intimidating to a beginning student,” says Nelson. “My goal with David was to check in periodically to let him know I was near if he needed me, and to offer encouragement and confirm that he was not just another student but was someone special.”

Marilyn was deeply touched and impressed that a university the size of Purdue was taking such steps to watch over a student – especially her son – in this situation. She too felt the compassion that Joe had felt when those two words, “Welcome home,” had been spoken to him.

It was at that moment she decided to give back something lasting to Purdue.

Purdue alumni form a close and supportive community, and it spans the globe under the banner of the Boilermaker family. Their shared values are reflected in the work they do, the friendships they make, and their approach to the large and small challenges they face every day.
Joe Sommers’ life reflected those values, and in 1995, the Joseph Rivers Sommers Memorial Scholarship was created to honor and celebrate the generous and giving person he was.

This fall, the Sommers family will come to campus to celebrate the presentation of the 25th Joseph Rivers Sommers scholarship to a Purdue student, whose story has yet to be written and who will become part of a remarkable group shaping the future of our world: the Boilermaker family.

Editor’s note: David Sommers graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Consumer and Family Sciences. He now owns Mad Mushroom Pizza.

Writer: Karen Pulliam, assistant director for stewardship communications in the University Development Office. 49-43872, kjpulliam@prf.org