Couple wanted to give back to the university, saying, ‘CU has been our life’
When Cassandra Geneson says of herself and her husband, Professor Dave Walba, “CU has been our life,” she means it literally.
Walba started as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder back in 1977. During his 45 years at the university, he, in collaboration with faculty in the Department of Physics, helped pioneer the field of ferroelectric liquid crystals (a display technology for screens), helped found the chemistry department’s Materials and Nanoscience Program, co-founded two companies based upon CU Boulder’s liquid crystal research, won several distinguished honors for teaching, and served for several years as the chair of the chemistry department.
For her part, Geneson worked in the Science Library at CU Boulder from 1977 through 1985 after graduating from the university in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree with distinction in anthropology, which she says was one of the most transformational experiences of her life.
“My years in the Department of Anthropology was just an eye opener. It made me understand the diversity of the world and how important it is and how interesting it is,” she says. “And, I had great professors, many of whom I remained friends with years after graduation. So, it was just a really important time for me.”
Walba says that after the couple married and he became chair of the department in 2006, Geneson proved to be indispensable at arranging faculty events that helped to bond members of the chemistry department.
“When I was chair, she was like a co-chair,” he says. “She was running all these department functions, and it was a really good time for the department. There was a lot of collegiality—and Cassandra had a lot to do with that.”
Even after working for more than four decades at the university, Walba has no immediate plans to retire. Still, the couple has given considerable thought to the future of CU Boulder—and to the chemistry department in particular—which ultimately prompted them to make a $1 million bequest to the department.
Early days at the university
Walba and Geneson first met at CU Boulder.
She recalls being a young mother, going through a divorce and working at the Science Library when, one day in May 1978, she met Walba, whom she initially mistook for a graduate student. After talking with him a bit and learning he was an assistant professor, she decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask him out for coffee at the student center.
That first date turned into several more, and the couple wed in 1981. Last year, they celebrated their 40th anniversary.
“The chemistry department has been like a family to us,” Geneson says, adding, “When Dave and I married, the whole chemistry department came to our reception.”
She says that she has always been interested in her husband’s work. In fact, she says that when they were dating, she would sometimes sneak into his classes to observe him teaching.
“Dave was a fabulous professor,” she says. “I was dazzled by his ability to relate complex ideas in ways that could be easily grasped by his students.”
You can be middle class like us and still give a gift. ... The amount isn’t what’s important."
Walba says teaching has always been fulfilling, but he adds that doing research on liquid crystals and starting companies based upon that technology has been especially rewarding.
He and CU Boulder physics Professor Noel Clark—who first brought liquid crystal research to CU Boulder—have collaborated on numerous research projects over the years, two of which they spun off into businesses.
Walba says the timing on the launch of their first company, Displaytech, founded in the early 1980s, was particularly fortuitous, as Congress had recently passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed entities receiving government funding for their research to retain the rights to their work. (Previously, the government mandated that any research that made use of federal funding had to remain in the public domain, meaning work accomplished on a university campus couldn’t be patented.)
“It was a rush,” Walba says of launching the company. “Cassandra and I both enjoyed that era (the 1980s). For one thing, it was the first time we could afford to go out to dinner,” Walba says with a laugh, and Geneson concurs with a chuckle.
Walba says that he has never considered leaving CU Boulder, in large part because of his longtime partnership with Clark.
The two men were co-founders of the Liquid Crystal Materials Research Center, which received several million dollars in funding from the National Science Foundation over the years, with generous matching funds from CU Boulder, and which brought together professors with expertise in the areas of physics, engineering and chemistry to do research on materials chemistry.
Much of the focus of the LCMRC was on ferroelectric liquid crystals, which are organic materials that are in some ways liquid and in some ways solid, making them ideal for information-display applications such as computers, cell phones and watches.
“That was extremely important for the university,” Walba says of the LCMRC, which he says resulted in CU Boulder’s being a leader in the field. “It’s impossible to over-estimate how important it was.”
Separately, Walba was instrumental in creating the chemistry’s Materials and Nanoscience Program when research into nanoscience was still in its infancy.
Meanwhile, over the years, Walba has been recognized with several awards for teaching, including the prestigious Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teach-Scholar Award, dedicated to the advancement of the chemical sciences.
“Recognition is nice, but that’s not the reason I do what I do,” says Walba. “The best thing is the exciting nature of the work and the colleagues I get to work with.”
The chemistry of philanthropic faculty
Summarizing his time at CU Boulder, Walba says, “It’s been a remarkable journey.” He says when he and his wife thought about the future and decided to make a will, they wanted to give a meaningful gift to the chemistry department.
“I supported the gift,” Geneson adds. “It’s a way for us to give back.”
With the $1 million endowment pledge the couple made this summer, they joined the ranks of other philanthropic faculty in the chemistry department. Together with planned gift commitments from Professor Joseph Michl and his late wife, Sara, and Professor Tad Koch and his wife, Carol, the chemistry department will receive $6.5 million in endowed funding—or more than $250,000 annually in current funds—in perpetuity.
The trio of professors’ gifts each support unique needs in the chemistry department, according to Chemistry Department Chair Wei Zhang. Walba and Geneson chose an unrestricted endowment for the needs of two divisions within the department: organic chemistry and materials and nanoscience. The Michls will establish an endowed faculty chair.
Meanwhile, the Kochs have established an endowed graduate fellowship fund, and Tad Koch’s brother, Gary, a professor of biostatistics at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, will also support the fund, as well as a future bi-annual conference for organic chemistry.
“The Walba (Cassandra B. Geneson and David M. Walba) Endowed Chemistry Funds will help the department in many important ways, such as purchasing new equipment to meet teaching and research needs, supporting student travel to conferences, funding support to attract top graduate students to the department, and/or bringing world class speakers to the department for seminars and colloquiums,” Zhang says.
“Together with prior Koch Endowed Fellowship Fund and Michl Endowed Chair in Chemistry Fund, these generous donations will strongly support the department's pursuit of excellence and help create extraordinary academic and research opportunities for students and faculty.”
These gifts build on a tradition of generosity by CU Boulder chemistry professors (see “CU Boulder chemistry professors: a history of giving”).
Geneson says she hopes the bequest she and her husband are leaving to the chemistry department will send a message to others about the value of giving—whether the gift is big or small.
“You can be middle class like us and still give a gift,” she says. “The amount isn’t what’s important.”