$3 million infusion to endowment directly benefits Cornell students

Cornell College students will have access to new scholarship and experiential learning funds, thanks to the generosity of two Class of ’69 roommates and a 1938 alumnus, whose combined gifts to the endowment total over $3 million.

Rodger Johnston ’38 has left Cornell a $1.1 million bequest to endow a scholarship fund in honor of his parents.

Geologists Preston Sitterly ’69 of Sonoma, California, Steve LaFollette ’69 of Edmond, Oklahoma, and Steve’s wife Julie LaFollette, are jointly gifting the Department of Geology more than $2 million.

The gifts are part of the Greater > Than Campaign to increase Cornell’s endowment, a financial foundation that provides a perpetual resource base to support the college’s programs.

Postmaster leaves legacy

Rodger Johnston '38
Rodger Johnston ’38

Rodger Johnston ’38 oversaw more than 200 employees as an Army postmaster in Hawaii during World War II and was later recalled to the Pacific during the Korean War. Returning to his hometown of West Liberty, he served as the town’s postmaster until 1975. He married for the first time at age 69 and traveled extensively with his wife, Dorothy Sharar Johnston.

Upon his death in 2017 at age 101, he left a $1.1 million bequest to endow a Cornell scholarship in honor of his parents, Bonnie and Arthur Johnston.

“Rodger was thrilled to be able to do this,” said his attorney, Jim Keele ’70, whose parents were also Cornellians and Johnston’s close friends. “Perhaps he can change the world through a student.”

Keele described Johnston as “always smiling” and “very interested in current events.”  

“This gift from Rodger will make a difference in the lives of many students,” said Senior Director of Development Kristi Webster Columbus ’96. “I believe he will change the world through these students, and we are grateful for his legacy.”

Geologists join for major gift

Preston Sitterly ’69 and Steve LaFollette ’69 at Merner Hall
Preston Sitterly ’69 (left) and Steve LaFollette ’69 at Merner Hall in 2014.

Preston Sitterly ’69 and Steve LaFollette ’69 met through their geology classes in Norton Geology Center and became roommates in Merner Hall. The summer before their senior year they attended an Associated Colleges of the Midwest field camp near Ely, Minnesota, where they met Beloit College student Julie Munger. After graduation all three pursued master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Steve and Julie married in 1970.

Steve LaFollette eventually worked for Devon Energy Corporation, leading a team of geologists around the world looking for oil. Julie LaFollette co-founded STAR Geophysics in 1986 to serve the oil and gas exploration industry. Sitterly was an executive at Harding Lawson Associates, which provided environmental engineering, infrastructure, and construction services.

In 2016—as a followup to Steve and Preston’s 45th reunion at Cornell—the three met at Preston’s home in California and decided to create a joint gift for the geology department. The LaFollette-Sitterly Geology Endowed Fund will support Cornell geology majors with scholarships and increased research opportunities.

“We hope to perpetuate the enthusiasm for geology that was instilled in us by the late geology professor Herb Hendricks ’40,” said Steve LaFollette. “We also hope to be able to assist in training future geologists. And maybe they’ll help meet our country’s future energy needs.”

Sitterly said that as the years went by, he looked back on his life and realized how important his Cornell education, mentors, and friendships were. “I’ve been very very fortunate in many ways and it goes back, to a large extent, to my four years at Cornell College. The life path that I took was influenced by professors Herb Hendriks ’40 and Gene Hinman ’52,” he said.

Preston Sitterly ’69 (front row, second from left), Julie Munger LaFollette (center of front row) and Steve LaFollette ’69 (directly behind Julie) during an Associated Colleges of the Midwest field camp near Ely, Minnesota, in 1968.
Preston Sitterly ’69 (front row, second from left), Julie Munger LaFollette (center of front row) and Steve LaFollette ’69 (directly behind Julie) during an Associated Colleges of the Midwest field camp near Ely, Minnesota, in 1968.

They both agreed that field trips were a major attraction for them as geology majors and that major resources are required to offer them. “This endowment will allow them to expand their field trips,” said Sitterly.

Cornell’s Department of Geology is the oldest in Iowa, with course offerings dating back to 1855. Faculty said the gift will allow them to ramp up their field experiences and off-campus research.

“The geology faculty cannot begin to express how excited we are by this gift, which is both extremely generous and totally unexpected,” said William Harmon Norton Professor of Geology Rhawn Denniston. “Steve and Preston have fundamentally changed our department by providing the resources to give all of our students in-depth field experiences, including at our research areas in Sweden, China, Portugal, and Australia. Thanks to Steve and Preston, we will now literally be able to offer our majors the world.”