Sisters' unexpected gift to help fund professorship

12:43:13 PM CDT - Friday, February 25, 2005

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

It came as a surprise and with no strings attached: a gift of more than $1.1 million from the estates of two women who seemingly had little connection to Wichita State University.

Last fall, the WSU Foundation received notice that the university had been among the charitable recipients of the estates of local sisters Katherine and Edith Erker. The gift was made with no restrictions, meaning the donors had not indicated any specific purpose for the money.

Foundation officials attempted to find out who the sisters were and what may have motivated them to give the university such a gift, but with no known living relatives, a search yielded little information.

While the sisters, who both worked as secretaries, seemingly led private lives, part of their gift to WSU will have a noticeable effect. With $350,000 from the gift, the WSU Foundation board of directors has established a Faculty of Distinction professorship fund, which is part of a legislative program in which the state annually matches the earnings of the fund. No decision about the criteria for the professorship has been made yet, according to John Hutchinson, vice president for academic affairs and research.

"The remainder (of the gift) is being placed in our modest unrestricted reserve, the earnings of which support the Foundation and presidential priorities," said Elizabeth King, vice president for university advancement and executive director of the Foundation.

Mary Nelson from WSU's special collections department, was able to piece together some information on the two sisters and their siblings that indicated limited ties to the university.

This is what her research yielded: Edith Erker (1902-2000) attended Fairmount College, now Wichita State University, for a portion of the fall semester in 1920. She went on to work for several law firms and an oil and gas drilling company. Katherine Erker (1907-2002) worked as a secretary for a local construction company, and it is not believed that she ever attended the university. Edith and Katherine had five siblings, one of whom attended summer classes at the University of Wichita, a predecessor to Wichita State University, for nine summers between 1930 and 1953.

According to an article in The Wichita Eagle, one of the sister's caregivers didn't recall any ties to the university either. In the article, Marilyn Castillo said she thought the women had money from savings, some land, investments in the stock market and inheritances.

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