PULLMAN, Wash. — During her lifetime, Mildred Bissinger touched those around her with her generosity and her love for learning.
With her death last year, she has assured that her passion for good books and fine art will be passed on to future students through an approximately $2.5 million gift to Washington State University. The gift — among the top ten endowed gifts to WSU from an individual — will establish close to $1 million endowments each for the department of philosophy and the Museum of Art, and an almost $500,000 endowment for the WSU Libraries’ Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections.
“This is overwhelming — the scope of the thing,” said Michael Neville, philosophy department chairman. “We’ve never had anything like it.”
Bissinger, who grew up on a farm near Tekoa, graduated from Washington State College in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She taught high school English for eight years before moving to California in 1943. There, she married John W. Bissinger in 1951. A bookbinder and printer who also wrote poetry, she had a deep love for poetry, the arts and literature. She was also a strong supporter of WSU, and her gift continues the anonymous support that she provided for many years to several areas of the university, particularly in the arts and literature for which she cared so deeply.
“Soon after I arrived at WSU, I witnessed the gift of $5,000 to start the first endowment for the Museum of Art,” said WSU President Samuel H. Smith. “Since then, it has been wonderful to see not only the museum’s growth through private gifts, but also the tremendous generosity of WSU’s donors to the areas they care so deeply about. Mildred’s gift exemplifies this generosity and will have a wonderful impact on not only the Philosophy Department, the Museum of Art and MASC, but also on the students and community who enjoy these areas as much as Mildred did.”
Bissinger’s gift to philosophy will positively affect a department that she supported for many years. She was a former student of Frank Potter, who had been instrumental in founding the department. After his death, she anonymously provided the support to start the Potter Memorial Lectures, which annually have brought in renowned philosophers from throughout the country. In the mid-1980s, she again stepped in to support the lectures, topping off the endowments and establishing them as a permanent fixture on campus.
“This comes at a time when the department is growing,” said Neville. “We have more majors and we’re looking at the possibility of offering a master’s degree. This may help facilitate all of these and enhance a number of projects that are just getting underway.”
Bissinger was a long time contributor to the permanent collection. Since 1993, she gave over 17 important prints by major American artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and Reginald Marsh. They are valued at more than $25,000. She also contributed cash gifts of $85,000 in the past eight years, in addition to her most recent gift.
For the Museum of Art, Bissinger’s endowment will support ongoing operations for the museum. Pre-design planning for a new museum is underway, scheduled to open in 2006. As part of this, the museum will be significantly growing its membership base to support program expansion. The funds also will be used to shepherd major gifts to keep the endowments growing, and create a strategy for museum programs and use of the new building.
“The Museum of Art is at a crucial stage in its institutional development,” said Dyana Curreri-Ermatinger, museum director. ”As we move forward in our plan to build a new museum, we must find support to allow the museum to expand its base of operations and increase its visibility, especially around the state. The mission of the museum is education, and so we will use the Bissenger endowment to increase connectivity to the academic curriculum and to support outreach through the university system and throughout the region. As Mildred Bissinger grew up in eastern Washington, she understood the impact the museum could have on the quality of life as well as contributing to the foundation of good liberal arts education.”
In the WSU Libraries’ Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, Bissinger’s gift will also assure continuing preservation and conservation of the books and historical materials she dearly loved. During her lifetime, Bissinger provided the support that bought everything from an industrial-sized paper cutter to make specialized enclosures for fragile books to a computer work station and scanner to allow for easy access to the collection’s historical photos.
“I think she was one of the most generous people I have ever met in my career as a librarian, ” said Laila Miletic-Vejzovic, head of MASC at Holland Library.
While her gift will make a significant difference to the areas she supported, those who knew her say that her friendship was the gift that they will treasure. Bissinger was known to bind poetry booklets together for friends and was constantly finding good literary tidbits to pass on. Clippings from the New Yorker or a note on a good film were frequently known to appear in friends’ mailboxes. Even late in life, she determinedly sought to learn. Visiting with her once in the 1970s, Neville couldn’t help but notice the weighty tome on her coffee table, “The History of the Peloponnesian War.” Sprightly and friendly, Bissinger was cheerfully leading her book group through it, and they had asked her to lead them in tackling the Old Testament next.
“She is a shining example of how to live a life, really,” said Patricia Watkinson, former director of the WSU Museum of Art, who considered Bissinger a friend.