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Oberstar's $500,000 estate gift will fund teaching award

Barry McNamara
02/19/2014
H. Betty Weiss Oberstar, a 1943 graduate of Monmouth College, made a name for herself at Bristol-Myers Squibb as director of research and development for the International Consumer Products Division of Clairol. The first woman from Monmouth’s distinguished chemistry program to receive professional distinction, she was inducted into the college’s Hall of Achievement, the highest honor it bestows upon its graduates.
 
That distinction ensures that Oberstar’s name lives on at Monmouth, and ensuring a legacy was also the impetus behind a $500,000 estate gift she recently made to Monmouth College. Oberstar’s gift will fund the Garrett W. Thiessen Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, enabling the college to both reward and encourage excellent teaching and student mentorship.
 
“I wanted his name to be remembered,” said Oberstar of the legendary professor, who taught at Monmouth from 1930 until his death in 1967. “He was such a special person who I admired so much. He was one of my heroes. Buildings change names, equipment and offices change or become outdated, but an award like this can live on. His name will appear every year, and it will be a way to remember him.”
 
Thiessen was responsible, indirectly, for Oberstar’s attendance at Monmouth. Drawn by Monmouth’s “strong reputation” in chemistry – a reputation largely developed by professor William Haldeman (who taught from 1918 to 1954) and Thiessen, she completed her final two years of study at MC.
 
Haldeman then helped secure a spot for Oberstar in a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, but she got married instead. That didn’t mean Oberstar put chemistry on the back Bunsen burner, though. She spent her entire 50-year professional career in chemistry-related positions, finally settling in at Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1975.
 
“Hair color was my specialty,” she said. “I was in charge of a six-person lab, and one of the things we needed to do was modify our products based on the availability of raw materials.”
 
Because the company was global, her team also developed products for different countries, and Oberstar said, “We did a good job, especially, for Spain, and we made a shade of red that was the No. 1 red in Mexico.”
 
Her work in quality control helped her fulfill a childhood dream of seeing the world, and she took business trips to “numerous countries in Europe and Southeast Asia, to Australia and New Zealand, to Sri Lanka – I traveled everywhere.”
 
Still, the native of Ottawa, Ill., never forgot her Midwestern roots and the education she received at Monmouth.
 
“The college had a reputation all over the Midwest for graduating many, many students who went to get their Ph.D.s,” Oberstar said. “What wonderful teaching they had. Professor Thiessen was a very brilliant man – a charming, lovely, kind man, but a very, very tough teacher. We had a 5- to 10-question quiz at the beginning of every class that covered what we had learned the class before. You learned the material, or you didn’t get through.”
 
Oberstar is thankful that her college education came at a school like Monmouth, and she offered advice for today’s generation of students.
 
“I personally feel that a very intelligent thing for young people to do is to find a fine liberal arts college like Monmouth that has excellent teaching and a strong reputation and then find what it is that they want to do,” she said. “Make those friendships and enjoy the happiness of the college years in a situation where there won’t be as much pressure as at a larger university. Then, when they figure out exactly what they want to do, they can go on and get an advanced degree at a larger school.”
 
Those students who choose Monmouth will have a say in Thiessen Award winners, voting on the college’s top professor when they are seniors. The award will rotate through departments, with a three-year waiting period for a department after one of its professors wins the substantial cash award.