Professor leaves $2.2 million to WSU chemistry department

A Wichita State University professor known for his deep dedication to students and love of organic chemistry has bequeathed $2.2 million to the department where he spent more than 40 years of his career.

The WSU Foundation announced last week that Erach R. Talaty, who died in June, left the money to the institution’s chemistry program to help create endowed scholarships and fellowships for students and to establish a teaching and research position for the department.

The $2.2 million is thought to be the largest estate gift given to WSU to date by any current or former faculty or staff member, said James Rhatigan, consultant to the WSU Foundation. The news comes nearly five months after Talaty died at his Wichita home on June 13. He was 86.

“We’ve gone back in history, and we couldn’t find anything even close,” said Rhatigan, also a longtime friend of Talaty’s and the executor of his estate.

“His gift is significant because it’s spread across three areas. … And it comes at a very good time, because dollars for students are hard to come by,” Rhatigan said.

Of the gift, Rhatigan said about $1 million will fund the distinguished professorship, to be used to bring a scientist to WSU to teach and conduct research.

An estimated $625,000 will provide fellowships to graduate students in chemistry, he said. The remaining $400,000 is earmarked for undergraduate scholarships.

David Eichhorn, WSU professor and chemistry department chairman, said he knew of Talaty’s plan to bestow the gift for a few years prior to his death.

The amount, however, came as a surprise.

“We just recently learned of the extent of this gift, and it’s far more than we thought it would be,” Eichhorn said.

He added: “Our students, as you might imagine, are all struggling to find ways to pay the bills and pay tuition, so this will certainly be a great addition to the scholarships (and fellowships) they already have to make a dent in those needs.”

Talaty, who many called a beloved and favorite professor, joined the WSU faculty in 1969. He was born in Persia in 1926 and earned multiple chemistry degrees from India’s Nagpur University before moving to the U.S. He received his second doctorate from Ohio State University in 1957, married his wife, Margaret, who preceded him in death, and had two stepdaughters. He was a faculty member at Louisiana State University and the University of South Dakota prior to his tenure at WSU, where he taught general and organic chemistry courses and conducted research focusing on fundamental aspects of chemistry and the make-up of molecules, Eichhorn said.

During his career, Talaty celebrated numerous accomplishments, including authoring nearly 100 scientific publications and studying with Nobel Prize winner Robert Woodward, a leader in organic chemistry during the 20th century. He also was named the Carnegie Foundation’s Kansas Professor of the Year in 1999, earned WSU’s Leadership in the Advancement of Teaching Award and was key in helping the chemistry department’s transition into a research-based program.

“He was just someone who had a lot of historical knowledge,” Eichhorn said of Talaty, “and (who) had a lot of knowledge in general for the faculty and staff.”

But his primary focus was on students.

“He would hand-write the next day’s lecture and distribute it to students,” Rhatigan said. “He felt that if he had the notes written out, students could listen rather than take notes.

“He loved chemistry and wanted everyone to succeed.”

After more than 40 years of teaching, Talaty succumbed in June to what Eichhorn called “a long illness.”

Just a few weeks before his death, he had administered final exams to students.

“Literally he stopped teaching the last class and went to the hospital,” Eichhorn said.

“The department meant so much to him, and he meant so much to the department. Given that reciprocal relationship ... it (Talaty’s $2.2 million gift) is really fitting.”