Popular professor, life-long learner honored through scholarship
David Witmer helped evolve UWL into what it is today. As assistant chancellor from 1972-90, he provided leadership in planning, budgeting and establishing new academic programs. He helped secure approval for campus buildings, including Center for the Arts and Wimberly Hall.
But what Doris Witmer remembers most about her husband’s time at UWL isn’t related to program development or facility planning. She pulls a framed column off the wall of her La Crosse home. Originally printed in the Racquet student newspaper and written by a former graduate student of David’s, it describes him as having “an absolute passion for his craft in teaching.” It goes on to thank David for being the type of professor who shares his love for his subject area.
Lee Goodhart, a retired professor of teacher education, had the office next door to David’s in Morris Hall when they both taught education courses. Goodhart describes David as “a quiet guy with a wry sense of humor” who was not only popular among students. Many faculty went to him for his thoughtful advice and admired the way he engaged students in topics.
Goodhart and other education faculty would sometimes go to David’s classroom just to watch him kick off a class. He was known for starting in a dramatic way — with some outrageous statistic or unbelievable fact, says Goodhart.
“It was enjoyable to watch,” he recalls. “His student ratings were always exceptionally good.”
Not only was he a gifted teacher, David was a life-long learner, says Doris. She recalls the many evenings when he’d go to his upstairs room where papers were spread across the floor to do research and other work well into the evening.
David grew ill with pancreatic cancer in the spring 1998. Some students who knew of his diagnosis placed his name on top of their mortarboards at spring commencement. He died that August at age 65.
Doris says starting a scholarship that honors her husband and supports education majors just made sense. Not only because David was an educator who deeply connected with and motivated students, but also because he spent his lifetime giving to others.
David was raised in a parsonage and his parents taught him to be generous, says Doris. Throughout his working career, he always gave money to different causes whether the church or the local hospital. At one point Doris shared her concerns with David that he was giving away more money than was coming in.
“He said, ‘what do you want that you don’t have?” recalls Doris. “I thought about it. There was nothing. That was the end of that. I became a cheerful giver from that point on.”
Doris says her husband would be very pleased to learn she decided to direct her giving toward UWL. “He’d wonder why I didn’t do it sooner,” she says.
A UW System start
Prior to UWL, David Witmer was a program coordinator in Academic Affairs for UW System central administration. He brought experience as an administrative officer, systems and procedure analyst, teacher and military police officer. He had also served as a staff and legislative lobbyist for the Board of Regents from 1964-72. Under Gov. Warren Knowles and Gov. Patrick Lucey, he served on the staff of the Kellett Commission, successfully urging creation of the University of Wisconsin System.
This story appeared in the summer 2017 Lantern alumni magazine. Read the issue.