Alumnus gift continues legacy of excellence at Illinois Physics

The Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has realized a substantial estate gift from the late Gary Kelly, an Illinois Physics alumnus from Slidell, Louisiana. Gary earned a master’s degree in physics from Illinois in 1974, which prepared him for a successful career at Shell and later in the defense industry in Washington, D.C. Gary maintained a lifelong interest in the department and its success. In early 2018 Gary met with a member of the Physics staff to discuss how he could support Illinois Physics in a substantial way.

“We deeply appreciate Gary Kelly’s generosity and his investment in our department’s core missions of research, teaching, and outreach,” comments Head of Department and Professor Matthias Grosse Perdekamp. “Unrestricted funds such as these are applied where they will make the greatest impact. Through his generosity, Gary Kelly’s legacy at Illinois will include his support of important new opportunities directly in line with our core missions. A large portion of Gary’s gift will support the research of exceptional women faculty early in their careers, enabling Illinois Physics to attract and retain promising women physicists.”

Women comprise a small minority internationally in the field of physics, and this is evident at all levels, including undergraduate and graduate enrollments. At Illinois Physics, progress toward more balanced numbers is underway, but is slow, despite the commitment to equality demonstrated by administrators, faculty, postdocs, staff, and students. Between 2012 and 2014, only about ten percent of physics bachelor's degrees at Illinois were awarded to women. Current enrollment of women undergraduates is at 18 percent. Through multiple initiatives, Illinois Physics is working as a community to improve the numbers and maintain a supportive, welcoming climate for underrepresented groups in the department.

Gary’s gift will also support several other departmental initiatives, including establishing two annual staff awards, to be presented each Fall in recognition of exceptional dedication and outstanding work.

Perdekamp adds, “We couldn’t do what we do without our hardworking staff, and this award will both recognize and motivate the people who make our programs go."

Illinois Physics Director of External Affairs Celia Elliott met Kelly about 12 years ago. She recalls, “I was very fortunate to meet Gary at a Physics alumni reception held in conjunction with the American Physical Society’s March meeting when it was in New Orleans in 2007. Although he had not ‘done physics’ for a number of years, Gary still had a lively interest in current research and really valued his physics training. He had not been back to Urbana since he graduated, but he still seemed to feel a strong connection to and affection for the department. His generous gift was in some ways a wonderful surprise, and in others, no surprise at all.”

This legacy gift is a reminder of the incredible impact that we have on our students in the time they are on campus. Gary’s desire to invest in the department, ensuring its continued success, is a wonderful legacy to leave behind. We know that he would be proud of how we are using this gift to support women in physics, our innovative faculty, and our dedicated staff.

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