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UMPI receives $1 million gift establishing first-ever endowed chair

Permanent faculty position named in honor of

internationally known potato scientist Dr. Robert Vinton Akeley

With the stroke of a pen, officials with the University of Maine at Presque Isle received a gift of $1 million from benefactor Mary Barton Akeley Smith to establish the first-ever endowed chair in the institution’s history. The permanent faculty position was formally named the Dr. Robert Vinton Akeley Chair of Agricultural Science and Agribusiness during an official announcement and naming ceremony on Oct. 23.

Smith—who lives in California, hails from Presque Isle, and whose generosity has benefited several Presque Isle institutions over the years—offered the gift in honor of her father, Dr. Robert Akeley, and in memory of her husband, Rodney Smith.

“This is an incredible milestone for UMPI, not only because this is the largest one-time gift we’ve ever received, but also because it’s the first gift of this magnitude ever explicitly designated to the development of an academic program—our new Agricultural Science and Agribusiness program—that will directly impact the economy and well-being of the County for generations to come,” UMPI President Ray Rice said. “We give our most sincere and profound thanks to Mrs. Mary Barton Akeley Smith for this gift. Her exceptional interest in the economic development of the County, her vision and generosity, and her engagement with higher education, is truly remarkable.”

Smith’s gift to UMPI’s Foundation endows a permanent faculty position within UMPI’s Agricultural Science and Agribusiness program. Funds will support the initial salary and benefits for the position as well as start-up costs of the program during the first four years—including equipment for the program and greenhouse, and summer research fellowships—with the balance held in an endowment. The endowed resources guarantee a strong future for the program, providing the Chair with additional resources for research, including financial support for student research, industry partnership, and program development and delivery.

“I was so proud of my father when the University of Maine at Orono showed appreciation for his work by granting him an honorary doctorate degree,” Smith said. “It is now so fitting that the University of Maine at Presque Isle is naming the chair of its new Agricultural Science and Agribusiness program after him. What a wonderful final chapter.”

The endowed chair is named in honor of Dr. Robert Vinton Akeley, a Presque Isle native who was an internationally known potato breeder and leader of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Potato Breeding Program. Growing up on a potato farm, he started his career with the crop at an early age. In 1932, at age 22, Akeley joined the Federal Program of Potato Investigations as a student-helper. He attended the University of Maine, graduating in 1937 with a Bachelor’s degree in Agronomy and in 1942 with a Master’s degree in Botany.

In 1942, he began conducting the Potato Breeding Program at the Aroostook Farm in Presque Isle for the Federal Program of Potato Investigations. In 1956, he transferred to Maryland to serve as leader of the National Potato Breeding Program, and in 1960, he assumed the leadership of Potato Investigations.

Akeley was directly or indirectly responsible for the release of 40 new potato varieties, including the Kennebec. His work in potato breeding received international recognition, and he authored more than 100 publications. He worked collaboratively with farmers, growers, processors, and fellow researchers in more than 30 states and 9 countries, all with a focus on potato culture varietal excellence.

He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Genetic Association of America. In 1967, the University of Maine recognized Dr. Akeley’s leadership and outstanding research in potato improvement by conferring on him an Honorary Doctor of Science degree and the Potato Association of America presented Dr. Akeley for Honorary Life Membership.

The Dr. Robert Vinton Akeley Chair will allow UMPI officials to build upon the newly established Agricultural Science and Agribusiness program.

“This endowed faculty position will bring to campus an experienced agriculture professor and researcher who will serve the students and agricultural community year-round through education, research, and outreach in our classrooms, labs, fields, and our new greenhouse,” Dr. Jason Johnston, UMPI Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “It will be a tremendous boost to our recently established and growing agriculture program. The support we have received from many in the community has been validation of our efforts, and this major gift and named chair certainly position us to grow our program and collaborations that connect us to our local economy and in support of local citizens. It is an honor to have a position named after Dr. Robert Akeley, who was such an accomplished agricultural scientist.”

University officials said Smith’s historic gift will create a lasting impact for the institution and the agriculture industry.

“We are most appreciative to Mary for her generosity and this tribute to her father’s outstanding scientific contributions and deep commitment to the potato industry,” Dr. Debbie Roark, UMPI Executive Director for University Advancement and External Affairs, said. “As her father did before her, she has made an incredible impact in the future of agricultural science and to the future success of the agriculture industry in the County and beyond.”