The School of Information Studies (iSchool) at Syracuse University announced on Thursday, October 17, 2013 it had received the largest bequest in its history – $7,000,000 – from the estate of Estelle Wilhelm (1916-2012). Mrs. Wilhelm (nee Katchmar), who made the bequest in honor her mother, Katherine Katchmar (nee Comcowich), had been a professional librarian and has no (known) living relatives.
Estelle Katchmar was born in Asonia, Connecticut, one of six children of Jacob & Katherine Katchmar on November 24, 1916. She had three sisters: Ann Katchmar, Helen Katchmar, and Mildred Lane; and two brothers: Michael Katchmar and Alexander Katchmar.
Jacob Katchmar died while Estelle was young. Her widowed mother “emphasized the importance of discipline, thrift and generosity,” according to Vige Barrie, who wrote a press release about a gift Estelle Katchmar Wilhelm made to another educational institution. She earned two degrees from Syracuse University in 1938 (Arts & Sciences) and ‘39 (iSchool). Her first degree was in Latin.
From 1939 to 1944, she worked as a children’s librarian George F. Johnson Memorial Library in Endicott, New York; the Free Library of Philadelphia; and The New York Public Library. Subsequently, she worked as a library for the United States Armed Services.
She worked as a librarian at the Battery General Hospital in Rome, Georgia; the U.S. Navy Material Technical Library Catalog Office in New York City; and the military base in Cape Lookout, North Carolina, which the U.S. Army transferred in 1945 to the U.S. Navy for use by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945. Her monthly book allowance at Cape Lookout was $500.
On June 18, 1941, Estelle Katchmar wed Curtis R. “Curt” Wilhelm (1917-2002) in the chapel of his alma mater, Hamilton College, outside Clinton, New York. They lived in New York City and North Carolina before they settled in 1959 in Gillette, New Jersey, where he died on October 31, 2002 at the age of eighty-five and she died on Friday, September 28, 2012 at the age of ninety-five.
This $7,000,000 bequest brings Mrs. Wilhelm’s total donations to the Syracuse University iSchool to $8,000,000, as she had already donated $1,000,000 in 2006 to establish the Katherine Katchmar Learning Center in Hinds Hall. She also donated $1,000,000 to Hamilton College in 2007.
Curt Wilhelm had graduated from Hamilton College in the class of 1940. He was a business executive who went into business for himself as a credit consultant in 1973.
Vige Barrie announced on May 29, 2007 that Mrs. Wilhelm had pledged $1,000,000 towards the renovation of the “Kirner-Johnson Building (K-J) was dedicated in 1968 as the centerpiece of [Hamilton Colleges sister institution] Kirkland College. It has served Kirkland and Hamilton Colleges for nearly 40 years and is now being renovated for future generations of students. It is home to the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center, the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center and the Oral Communications Center as well as the social sciences including the departments of economics, government, history and anthropology. The renovations will allow for expanded spaces for these popular centers and majors.”
The mezzanine of the renovated Kirner-Johnson Building will be named for him and a classroom in the building will be named for Estelle Katchmar Wilhelm. K-J was originally named for Walter R. Kirner and Virgil E. Johnson.
From the $7,000,000 bequest to Syracuse University’s iSchool, $1,000,000 has been earmarked for the iSchool’s Tech Endowment that provides new technology for classrooms and labs. How the remainder of the gift would be allocated had yet to be determined as of October. Personally, I would recommend an endowed chair on the iSchool faculty and scholarships for promising students of limited means.
“Mrs. Wilhelm’s precedent-setting gift is all the more stunning in light of the story behind it,” says Syracuse University Interim Chancellor Eric F. Spina. “She made the most of her SU education through a career that she not only found personally fulfilling, but through which she was able to touch the lives of so many with humility and cheer. Ultimately, it actually is a beautiful and towering legacy that she leaves, enabling the iSchool to transmit her impact forward for generations to come.”
“We are most appreciative of this generous gift from our loyal alum, Mrs. Estelle Wilhelm, a graduate of our master of library science program and a dedicated and happy librarian for many years,” said Dean of the iSchool and Trustee Professor Elizabeth D. Liddy. “As we plan how to best put her gracious gift to good use for the betterment of our school and the support of our students, we will frequently think back at how much she valued her education with us, her many years in a career she loved and the great smile on her face when she visited us in 2006 to celebrate her previous gift to the school.”