May 2019 | By Chuck Carlson
Barbara Weiskittel grew up on Maple Street in Albion. And, in many ways, she remains there to this day.
Her bright apple green bedroom? That’s been repainted. The Christopher Reeve poster on her wall? That’s gone.
But much remains and she keeps it in her heart and her soul and her memory.
“I felt it was a wonderful town to grow up in,” says Weiskittel, who has lived outside New York City for decades but when she visits Albion always stays at her home on Maple Street with her dad, Carl, and her stepmother, Jeanie, who also grew up in Albion. “I don’t think there has ever been a time when the community and the College were not important.”
She is a proud graduate of Jackson's Lumen Christi High School who knew from the time she was a kid that she would attend Albion College. And she did, graduating with honors in 1983 with a degree in chemistry.
“The College was a big part of my life,” she says. “I took swimming lessons there as a child. I was a lifeguard at the Kresge Gym pool in high school and in college I was a lifeguard at the Dow Center. Over breaks, I painted Wesley Hall. I had already picked out Albion.”
The school, and the community, remain as important to Barbara Weiskittel now as they were all those years ago—maybe more important. So when she returned to her alma mater to receive an honorary degree May 4 as a Commencement speaker for the Class of '19, she stayed at the home that meant so much to her.
“There was no expectation I’d do anything like this,” she says of her Commencement activities. “It’s humbling and exciting.”
Weiskittel is currently Director, Scientific Leadership in the Diabetes Franchise, Global Human Health, for Merck and Co. in Kenilworth, N.J., and while she has excelled in the pharmaceutical world for years, she has never forgotten where she came from. Nor does she want to.
She has long supported efforts at the College, starting with initial small donations after graduation and then by helping to endow the John Crump Endowment for Undergraduate Research in the Chemistry Department.
In recent years she has expanded her interests to help fund several other College initiatives—those include endowing a scholarship within the Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (FURSCA); a three-year gift to sponsor Albion's Big Read; and most recently a significant multiyear gift to provide funding and scholarship for the Build Albion Fellows program.
As well, working with Jeff Petherick, ‘85, she is investing in the New Albion Impact Group, which focuses on rebuilding and redefining downtown Albion, where this group continues to make a difference.
“It’s clear that today there’s a sense of connection—and a desire for connection and continued connection—between the town and the College,” she says.
Weiskittel said her interest evolved after talking with President Mauri Ditzler about his vision for the College and the community. And when that vision began to grow, she could see something special happening.
“There was a realization that we need to do it,’” she says. “Then local leaders, faculty and alumni like Sam Shaheen, Bill Dobbins and Jeff Petherick, and the city council and the mayor all got on board. We saw that we were all on the same page.”
FURSCA caught her eye as a program that did exactly what college is supposed to do—provide financial support that allows students to remain on campus and do research.
Weiskittel now supports Albion's Big Read, the yearly community-wide reading initiative that uses reading a shared book to connect a community.
“I believe in the program and as it’s designed, it’s exactly what we need for the community,” Weiskittel says. “I met with [professor of English and Big Read coordinator] Jess Roberts and I fell in love with the program. Reading has always been a passion of mine and for kids to take the next step, they need to learn how to study and read as well as be given opportunities to challenge themselves as leaders. A lot of these students in the program are honor students now.”
From there, Weiskittel has provided substantial support to Build Albion Fellows, now in its fifth year and one of President Ditzler's early ideas. The program, through a separate application process, identified local high school students who after gaining admission into Albion would receive free tuition, housing and meals for four years. In return, those students would perform community-service projects.
“I want the school and the community together to grow and thrive, and how better to do that in a clear and needful way than integrating the College and the community,” she says. “Your college is your home, your community is your home, and you should support your home.”
Weiskittel is also supporting the initiative to improve downtown Albion.
“I was looking at ways to help,” she says, pointing to examples such as the restoration of the Bohm Theatre, the development of the Ludington Center and the new Courtyard Marriott hotel downtown as examples of improvements on which the community and college have collaborated.
Now she hopes her decision to help her community and her college will spark others to help in the ways they feel are appropriate.
“Everybody can take a piece and make a difference,” Weiskittel says. I want people to say, ‘Yeah, I can do that. I can make a difference even with the smallest amount.' It’s simple when you think about it: First you learn, then you earn, and finally you return.”