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Portrait of Mary Cooper

Friends of the University looking to reenergize campus support

By Blake Sebring

August 1, 2023

If the members of a group called Friends of the University can match their new president’s excitement, intensity, and ideas, they’ll continue to be a force at Purdue University Fort Wayne for the long-term.

“We want to be more involved in the different departments on campus and whatever we can do to be more supportive like we are with the food pantry and like we are with the Empty Bowls project,” said Mary Cooper, a 41-year faculty member who retired in 2020 and became the group’s leader in June. “We want to see more of the university and what it has to offer. I’d love for all of us to know what kind of research we are doing here.”

Friends started in 1976 to support the university through the engagement of members in a variety of educational meetings, campus-based events, and annual giving. The membership includes current and former professional women who advocate and support the university while also continuing their own passion for learning.

And recently, the group recruited its first male member in Art Friedel, a professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Working through the Office of Development and Alumni Engagement, Friends has raised money for campus projects, including $15,000 for the Friends of the University Pantry. Over the 2022–23 academic year, the pantry served 5,100 individuals, an increase of 908 over the previous year, including 569 first-time visitors.

The other current major project is the Empty Bowls fundraiser cosponsored with the Department of Art and Design. Proceeds from the annual event go to the pantry, the PFW Student Ceramics Club, and the Blessings in a Backpack campaign for Fort Wayne Community Schools.

The group began presenting two annual student scholarships in 1978, started making annual Outstanding Teacher Awards in 1979, initiated a Helmke Library Endowment Fund in 1987, and built the Friends Pavilion in 1992. More recently, in 2008, the group purchased a Disklavier baby grand piano for the Department of Music, and became the official pantry sponsor in 2021.

Like everything, the pandemic slowed the group in 2020, but Cooper wants to stress not what the group was, but what it could be. She’s trying to interest new members and build engagement with students, faculty, and staff campus-wide. 

“I want them engaged in what we are doing here at the university,” Cooper said. “I want them to know what is going on because there are so many things.”

Friends gathers bi-monthly during the academic year with two-hour meetings including social time, lunch, and a guest speaker from the university faculty. Membership costs $60 annually or $500 for a lifetime.  This year’s first meeting is Sept. 18.

Those seeking more information about the group or to attend a speaker event, should reach out to Cheryl Honkomp, executive assistant to the chief development officer, at [email protected].