In memoriam: alumna Dr. Nancy Walls: a lifetime of adventure and generosity


Apr 15, 2013 Bookmark and Share

Dr. Nancy Walls, 82, died at Arbor Hospice on March 19, 2013. She was born in 1930 in Johnstown, Penn., the first of Frederick Alton and Effa Marie (Tucker) Williams' two children. The family moved frequently so her father could find work as a carpenter during the Great Depression, and she attended multiple elementary schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio. Despite this, she skipped the eighth grade, entered high school in Maryland at the age of 12, and finished high school at 15 in Akron, Ohio, where the family finally settled. Her mother decided she should go to secretarial school but, after mastering the steno machine, she was bored and cut classes to go to a friend's home. She entered the University of Akron as a 16 year-old and transferred to the University of Michigan after two years. There she completed her undergraduate and master's degrees, began her doctoral program, and met and married a fellow microbiologist, (her now ex-husband) Kenneth Walls, Ph.D., in 1956. They moved to Atlanta where she taught at Emory for a year while writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the effects of gamma radiation on botulism.

Walls spent her academic career at the Georgia Institute of Technology, joining their Engineering Experiment Station in 1959 and helping develop their Biology Department in 1962. 1966 proved a banner year for her as she spent February through April in Antarctica on a Navy ship with a NSF grant retrieving and studying microorganisms from the ocean floor. That summer, she presented papers at scientific meetings in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy and a botulism seminar in Moscow, Russia, arriving home to find that NSF wanted her to go back to Antarctica from September to November, which she did. From 1969-1970, she became the first woman to head a Georgia Tech department. In 1973, she established ABI, Inc. an environmental consulting firm. Among its major projects was the study and protection of sea turtles around nuclear power plants. When she retired in 1997, she did not forget the many glass ceilings she had encountered and remained a committed advocate for and supporter of careers for women in science. Happily, she lived to witness much progress at her alma mater.

Wall's travels took her to every continent and friends teased her about her seeming need to "keep moving up": learning to fly her own airplane; climbing Long's Peak in Estes Park; hiking to the Eagles Nest in Bhutan; hot air ballooning in Australia’s outback. She had a deep interest in the Indians of the Southwest, their pottery and weavings. She loved animals, sometimes more than people, especially those she felt were trashing the Earth and its creatures. Her respect for animals did not prevent her from being stalked by a mountain lion at the Grand Canyon, almost backing into a reclining moose while taking pictures in Yellowstone, surprising freshwater seals when she swam in Lake Baikal, and catching lice from a camel she rode to the pyramids. A second retinal vein occlusion in 2001 left Walls blind. She bore this affliction with stoicism and equanimity. Known for her photographic memory and vivid imagination, she took some comfort in being able to conjure up visual images from her many past adventures.

Walls was a generous donor to U-M, her desire was to provide support in the three areas where she participated. She provided an expendable scholarship that she was later able to fully endow as the need-based Dr. Nancy Williams Walls Scholarship for undergraduate students from out-of-state majoring in the natural sciences. Her dream was that students like her would have the opportunity to come to Michigan and begin a career that would enable them to pursue their intellectual passions and achieve their dreams.  

In 2004, she began funding the Young Scientists Symposium (now called Early Career Scientists Symposium) because she was so impressed by EEB Chair Deborah Goldberg's vision. Walls originally planned to fund the symposium for "two or three years" but she continued her sponsorship through 2013. As hoped, the symposium gained in size and prestige each year and provides a prominent platform for early career researchers that might not otherwise be available.

In 2008, Walls began regular support of the U-M Biological Station as part of the President's Challenge for Graduate Support to commemorate her graduate work at Michigan. Walls’ gifts to U-M totaled over $450,000 and in addition, she made a bequest to the Medical School for the Department of Microbiology and Immunology to honor "the most wonderful teacher I ever had" who taught Introduction to Microbiology when she was a doctoral student.

Walls wanted her gifts to demonstrate her gratitude to the university that started her science career and made her dreams come true. The generous U-M alumna has left her mark on the university and the science community at large in countless ways.

Walls is survived by her brother and sister-in-law, Frederick and Jean Williams and their two sons: Frederick, III ("Trey") and his three sons; and, Drs. Kenneth and Katherine Williams and their sons, Alec and Luke. Donations in her memory may be made to the University of Michigan for the Dr. Nancy Williams Walls Scholarship Endowment Fund in LSA, which supports undergraduate science majors, or to a charity of your choice. To make a donation to the Dr. Nancy Williams Walls Scholarship, call (888) 518-7888 (toll-free) or (734) 647-6179 (local) 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. EST. The respectful care and sensitivity of the staff at Arbor Hospice afforded dignity to her final days.

(Most of the obituary was published in AnnArbor.com, March 24, 2013)

Caption: Deborah Goldberg and Nancy Walls at the Young Scientists Symposium in 2009