Students in sciences benefit from new scholarship funds

May 7, 2015

The quality of education at Emporia State University, in both academics and in life, has prompted a Wichita couple to include the university’s students in their giving plans for the future.

The gift will be divided between the Bob Gress Natural History Scholarship Fund and the Mary Butel Science Scholarship Fund.

The Gress scholarships will be awarded to students at a master’s level in biology; the Butel scholarships will be given to students pursuing secondary education licensure in the physical sciences or to an elementary education major with an emphasis in science.

"The Butel and Gress scholarships undeniably will make a difference in the lives of our students now and well into the future," said Emporia State President Michael Shonrock. "It is especially gratifying to know that the years these alumni spent on campus equipped them with skills in academics and in life, and that they want others to have the benefit of that experience."

These gifts also bring direct and significant benefits to the university.

“We know that scholarships play a key role when students decide which university to attend, or even whether to pursue a degree,” said DenaSue Potestio, president/CEO of ESU Foundation. “These gifts from Bob and Mary will help us attract high-quality students who want to pursue careers in science.”

The gift was a logical step, the couple agreed.

“Without children, you take a look at what you’re going to do with your estate, and I have several things that I believe in,” Gress explained. “I’ve always felt that the education I got at Emporia State benefited me immensely. I would love to be able to support other students who might not be sure what they want to do, but with an interest in natural history.”

Gress received a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s degree in environmental biology, and was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 2010, the highest honor Emporia State confers on its graduates. He also earned teacher certification from Western Illinois University.

Gress spent his career introducing Kansas wildlife and plants to hundreds of thousands of people through his photography, programs and as the first director of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, where he gave between 200 and 300 talks annually to churches, schools and other organizations.

He started the Wichita Wild urban nature education program, produced a series of books on prairie natural history and has had more than 4,000 of his wildlife photographs published in a variety of books, magazines, posters, brochures, calendars and postcards.

In 2008, the Kansas Ornithological Society named Gress its Avian Conservationist of the Year. A book he co-authored, “The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots,” was chosen as a 2009 Kansas Notable Book.

Butel, a lifelong learner, received a bachelor of science in elementary education degree and a master of science in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in physical sciences. She later received a master of science from Western Illinois University in student personnel and certification as a library media specialist by Wichita State University.

She returned frequently to Emporia State, too, for summer school classes and workshops over the years, including workshops at the School of Library and Information Management after she transitioned from classroom teacher to school librarian.

She taught science at St. Thomas Aquinas in Wichita, and Maize Middle and Maize High Schools before accepting the librarian position for the Cheney school district.

As a science educator, she encouraged children’s interest in the sciences by coaching Science Olympiad events for 17 years, and escorted 13 teams to National Science Olympiad competitions throughout the United States.

She tried to instill an appreciation for science in her students.

“I know a lot of them thought I expected a lot,” she said. “I believe, if you have high expectations, students will rise to those expectations.”

It was an attitude developed, in large part, during her years as a student at Emporia State.

“I felt like Emporia State helped form me to be the adult I became,” Butel said. “I am hoping through the scholarship to perhaps give another student a helping hand to have that experience, too. ... It really helped me become an independent person.”

By the time the degrees had been conferred, Butel felt so at home, she found it difficult to leave the campus to take a job in Illinois.

Gress and Butel met in Emporia as students and fellow residence hall employees, each working their way through college.

“He was in the Towers, and I was in Central,” said Butel, the eldest in a family of 13 children growing up on a dairy farm outside Paola. “Emporia was a huge step for me. It was the first time for me leaving the farm, leaving the family.”

The family often teased her love of reading — “Mary, she’s always got her nose in a book” — and she’d intended to get a degree in English until she enrolled in a few science classes.

“The professors were very instrumental in forming my appreciation of science,” Butel said. “I just really enjoyed the teaching of science, and that love of science was definitely instilled in me in Emporia.”

Butel and Gress, both now retired, are finding time to feed their mutual interests by traveling to “wild places” across North and South America, Africa and Australia to photograph and study wildlife and plants.

Looking back on a full and satisfying career, Gress thought again about the fork in the road and the choice he made.

“It turned out great for me. I sometimes wonder why,” he said. “Eventually you look back and you say, ‘That worked out.’”

About Now & Forever

Launched in February 2013, Now & Forever: The Campaign for Emporia State University is a five- to seven-year effort with a working goal of $45 million. It is already the most successful fund-raising initiative in university history, with financial commitments now exceeding $34.5 million.

The campaign supports student scholarships, academic departments and initiatives that advance Emporia State’s mission to recruit students, teach and retain them, encourage them to graduate with lower levels of student debt, and ultimately put them on a path to a solid career.

For more information about Now & Forever giving opportunities, contact DenaSue Potestio, Emporia State University Foundation president/CEO,, 620-341-5440.