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New endowment honors a spirited St. Louis ‘symbol of Yale’

The family of William R. Orthwein Jr. and the William R. Orthwein Jr. and Laura Rand Orthwein Foundation, a St. Louis, Mo.-based philanthropic organization, have made a combined $2.5 million gift to the School of Medicine to endow a new Yale Scholar in Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

The Yale Scholars program, a recent initiative of Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., provides four years of research funding to the most promising new faculty members recruited at the medical school.

Orthwein, a 1938 graduate of Yale College, did a brief stint after graduation as a salesman for the General American Life Insurance Company, but soon moved to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (later to become McDonnell Douglas, now part of the Boeing Company), where he would enjoy a 45-year career. According to his daughter, Nettie O. Dodge, of Wheatland, Wyo., Orthwein began in the personnel division of the company and eventually headed that unit. He later became the first president and chairman of McDonnell Douglas Automation Company, or McAuto, which pioneered systems integration in the aircraft industry, particularly in the realm of computer-aided design and manufacturing.

Although Orthwein is dealing with complications of a stroke he suffered in 2003, he gathered in February with family and friends to celebrate his 90th birthday. Stephen Jones, J.D., a 1970 graduate of Yale College and trustee of the Orthwein Foundation who attended the celebration, considers Orthwein a “surrogate father” and often refers to him as “Uncle Bill.” “He is one of the guys who, when I was faced with a particularly vexing question, I would ask ‘What would my father do?’ and then ‘What would Bill Orthwein do?’ ” Jones says. “It’s a role that he has always played, and will always play in my life.”

Jones, an attorney in the St. Louis-based firm of Armstrong Teasdale LLP, says that Orthwein has been the most prominent figure in the St. Louis community of Yale alumni, a “symbol of Yale” for as long as he can remember, and that he has given over 100 years of combined service to cultural and charitable organizations in the city, including St. Luke’s Hospital, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Science Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden. “His involvement in the Yale community and in the St. Louis community more generally, in terms of his time, his talent and his treasure, is remarkable.”

Though he has enjoyed good vision throughout his life, Orthwein had a personal encounter with visual science in 1993, when his ophthalmologist reported on his anisocoria, or uneven pupil size, and its possible relation to the dispersion of pigment from his iris, in the Journal of Glaucoma.