April 18, 2008
AMES, Iowa — The first endowment for a department chair at Iowa State University will be established with a $2 million bequest from alumnus G. Richard "Dick" Johnson of Urbana, Ill. Johnson's commitment will create the Wilbert A. Russell Endowed Department Chair in Agronomy in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Johnson received his bachelor's degree in agronomy (1960) and his doctorate degree in plant breeding (1965) from Iowa State. Now retired after a long career in plant breeding with the DeKalb and Monsanto companies, he is currently an adjunct professor in the crop sciences department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Johnson chose to honor Wilbert Russell, a former Iowa State agronomy professor, by naming the endowed chair after him. "Professor Russell was scientist, a teacher and a plant breeder, but most of all he was a mentor and role model," said Johnson. "Dr. Russell's career should be an inspiration to all plant breeders and serve as an example of what can be accomplished through dedication and hard work." "We're extremely grateful for Dr. Johnson's commitment to create this first-on-campus endowed department chair position," said Wendy Wintersteen, the Endowed Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State. "His appreciation for the education he received as a student of Dr. Russell speaks highly of our legacy of excellent faculty in the Department of Agronomy and throughout the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences." Funds from this deferred gift will eventually be used to launch academic and research initiatives, support assistantships and fellowships, supplement recruitment and retention packages, and enable faculty development. Endowed leadership positions enable administrators to leverage human and financial resources to intensify the impact of their unit and its programs. This endowment will grant future chair holders the unique ability to capitalize on new opportunities and emerging priorities. Johnson began his career as a corn breeder in 1965 with the DeKalb Agricultural Association in Illinois, which later became part of Monsanto in the 1990s. Johnson is well-known for his research on implementing genetic marker-assisted breeding methods to improve corn. Wilbert Russell, a leading authority on corn breeding for nearly four decades, joined Iowa State's agronomy faculty in 1952. He was named a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture in 1984. He retired in 1989 and currently lives in Ames with his wife Dorothy. Russell dedicated his career to the genetic improvement of corn. As part of a team of university and federal plant breeders at Iowa State, Russell made major contributions to the success of public and private corn breeding programs. He developed, tested and released parental inbred lines that were a major factor in significant increases in yield. Russell was instrumental in developing the famous corn inbred line known as B73. Released by ISU in the early 1970s, B73 was used by seed companies to create new commercial hybrids that dramatically boosted corn yields for farmers. The lineage of most of the world's valuable, high-performing corn varieties can be traced back to Russell's work in developing B73. Russell also played a key role in educating plant breeders, including teaching an advanced plant breeding course for almost 30 years. Many of the graduate students who were taught and inspired by him — including Johnson — are today in top research and executive positions. This commitment is part of Campaign Iowa State: With Pride and Purpose, the university's $800 million fundraising effort that was publicly launched last October.