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Gift ‘builds new fires and digs new wells’ for Emporia State’s Department of Physical Sciences

March 13, 2014

DeWayne and Sherry Backhus offer an eloquent phrase, considered anonymous, to describe the spirit of philanthropy driving their seven-figure planned gift to Emporia State University: “We have been warmed by fires we did not build; we have drunk from wells we did not dig.”

This passage speaks to the fact we are where we are because of the support and encouragement of those who have gone before us.

The DeWayne and Sherry Backhus Physical Sciences Fund will support graduate assistantships for students seeking advanced degrees in chemistry, earth science, physics or physical science education. It will also provide funds for laboratory capital equipment in the department DeWayne Backhus served for 44 years as a faculty member and chair.

No other donor to Now & Forever: The Campaign for Emporia State University has made a larger planned giving commitment to date.

“Dr. and Mrs. Backhus are making a leadership gift to Now and Forever: The Campaign for Emporia State University with a spirit I can only describe as transformational,” said DenaSue Potestio, Foundation president/CEO.

“They are giving discretion to the department chair, in consultation with faculty, to use the funds in ways that will best advance the department over and above what state funds will provide,” Potestio explained.

The Backhuses consulted John Griffin, an estate planner who works at no charge with friends of the Emporia State University Foundation, for advice in setting up the gifts.

“Sherry and I believe in the potential of education to change lives,” said DeWayne Backhus, explaining the couple’s desire to inspire others to consider making a planned gift. “We’re grateful for what Emporia State and its predecessors provided for us educationally, and subsequently, for our professional careers.”

Sherry Backhus served as an academic librarian for over 37 years, the last 10 of which were affiliated with Emporia State in the ESU Newman Division of Nursing/Newman Regional Health Center Library and the William Allen White Library. She earned a Master of Library Science degree from Emporia State in 1989.

DeWayne Backhus earned his undergraduate degree from Kansas State Teachers College in 1966, which propelled him into a master’s degree program at Harvard. With burgeoning enrollment growth in the late 1960s, Backhus landed back in a tenure-track faculty position in the Division of Physical Sciences at KSTC. During a sabbatical, he earned a doctorate from the University of Kansas. He retired in 2011 as chair of Emporia State’s Department of Physical Sciences. 

Although officially retired, Backhus continues contributing his talents to Emporia State, leading the update of the University’s Strategic Plan.

“I thank Dr. Backhus not only for helping write the road map for Emporia State’s future, but also for the gift he and Sherry are making that creates such a bright opportunity for the students we serve,” said Dr. Michael D. Shonrock, president.

“We are so grateful that DeWayne and Sherry have chosen to build fires and dig new wells for other deserving individuals — our students,” he added.

Now & Forever:  The Campaign for Emporia State University is a grassroots effort to build spirit, camaraderie and a sense of pride of membership in the university. With a working goal of $45.3 million, the campaign has already reached the halfway mark in the year following its announcement. For more information on the Now & Forever campaign, including the opportunity for estate planning services, please contact the Emporia State Foundation at (620) 341-5440 or visit



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