EDWARDSVILLE — Geography students may get extra help at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, thanks to a late department chairman's will.
Melvin E. Kazeck, who started the geography department more than 40 years ago, died in February and left $476,000 to the university for his old department.
Kazeck came to SIUE in 1958 to develop a geography department. By the time he retired in 1976, his one-man department had grown to 20 faculty members.
"Mel was a great guy," said Robert Lewis, a 1976 graduate of the geography department and former student of Kazeck's. Now Lewis works at Development Strategies in St. Louis.
"He welcomed me into the program in 1974 and was truly pleased that I was there," Lewis said. "You could tell that he loved interacting with the students. Mel was always willing to help and was supportive in every way possible. I can only imagine that Mel is thrilled he was able to help the geography department that he founded."
SIUE's geography department now operates with 12 faculty members and eight graduate assistants, as well as four assistants in partnership with the lab for applied spatial analysis, according to current department chairwoman Gillian Acheson.
"This legacy gift is so thoughtful, because it will directly benefit students," Acheson said. "His gift will provide a wonderful educational opportunity for graduate students to participate in research with faculty. It also will allow successful recruitment of top-notch students from a larger geographic area and create growth for our graduate program."
Aldemaro Romano, dean of the college of arts and sciences, said the gift will fund two more graduate assistantships for the department. Currently, SIUE has about 120 undergraduate geography majors and 30 to 40 students pursuing master's degrees.
Kazeck's focus was in teaching earth sciences and planning, but the practical applications of geography have extended far beyond that in the decades since, Acheson said. Geography majors end up working in a variety of fields, including government contractors, city planners, fields relating to the use of natural resources and agricultural contractors such as Monsanto.
"Geographers study both natural and human-made landscapes, and what geographers are most interested in is how humans interact with the natural landscape," Acheson said.
Everything from planning a new development to plotting bus routes ends up with geography, Acheson said.
Even so, geography departments are not nearly as common in major universities as history or English. While most of Illinois' state universities have them, smaller colleges do not. And as a smaller department, it often escapes the notice of large donations.
"The department was overwhelmed by that gift, and so thrilled that he remembered the department that he founded," Acheson said.
Spokesman Doug McIlhagga said SIUE averages about $1 million a year in estate gifts, but that covers a wide range; one family might bequeath $4.5 million, while others much smaller amounts. Nearby McKendree University received about $2 million last year in estate gifts.
"It is a significant part of the giving every college is pleased to receive," said Victoria Dowling, senior vice president at McKendree University. "Typically it is a restricted gift; most people think carefully what part of a university they would like to affect."
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