Unassuming donor quietly gives the largest gift ever to Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration
A true ‘renaissance woman,’ Vivian Forde loved cinema, music, literature, the San Francisco Giants and space exploration, for starters. She also loved to be generous.
Few things made Vivian Forde happier than to see a busload of schoolchildren unload in front of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration to inspect the satellites, spacecraft models and meteorite specimens that command its lobby.
Forde, an ASU alumna, amateur astronomer and avid space enthusiast, spent many an hour herself at SESE learning as much as she could about space exploration and ASU’s many space projects. She especially loved the Marston Exploration Theater, where a sophisticated projection system took her on narrated 3D trips to the edge of the universe.
“She loved that students were so excited about science because she was so excited about science,” says Bill Kavan, associate vice president for engagement and outreach at the ASU Foundation, a private nonprofit that connects ASU supporters to their passions at the university.
“Vivian was not a science major. She was an English and education major but science was a hobby and a passion. She even built a telescope on her own out of pipes, mirrors and whatnot,” says Kavan, who arranged for and traveled with Forde to witness the launch of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in 2016.
Sadly, Forde became ill the following year and passed away in 2018.
Her obituary is an ode to a “renaissance woman” who “loved astronomy, the cinema, music, literature, sports, her beloved San Francisco Giants — and Elvis, whom she was convinced still lives.”
“Vivian was a consummate professional, but a bit of an eccentric,” it reads, explaining how she would don a cow costume every Halloween — complete with ears and udders — drive the freeway to her office and “carry on like it was any other business day.”
Also tucked away in the obituary is this simple line: “Vivian endowed the Forde Family Scholarship and established a trust that will benefit the university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.”
What it doesn’t say is that Forde — who worked for more than 30 years as a communications professional at Chevron — quietly saved enough during her lifetime to leave the school its largest gift ever, $3 million to create an endowment for SESE students, community outreach and research projects in perpetuity.
“Vivian was one of those donors that not many people know about,” says Christine Wilkinson, senior vice president of ASU and a lifelong friend. They go about their lives and don’t call attention to their gifts or their capacity to give. “But inside she was very passionate, cared a lot about things and wanted to advance knowledge.”
Forde’s gift comes at a time when the School of Earth and Space Exploration is establishing itself as a go-to player for NASA and space agencies around the globe, says Meenakshi Wadhwa, a planetary scientist who is director of the school.
ASU is one of seven U.S. institutions building interplanetary spacecraft. Currently seven instruments developed at ASU are in flight.
Twenty-two faculty members are engaged in space missions and 15 missions are in development, including the Psyche mission to an asteroid led by ASU planetary scientist and former director of SESE Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the second woman in NASA history to lead a deep-space mission.
“This is a really great time to be involved in any kind of exploration and scientific discovery,” Wadhwa says, adding, “It’s very exciting to be a part of that at ASU at this time because of all our involvement and what’s going on right now across the world in space exploration and beyond.”
Forde caught that excitement when she began attending community-outreach sessions by SESE faculty, part of a concerted effort to share scientific advancement with the larger community, Elkins-Tanton says.
“That’s how Vivian got to know us,” Elkins-Tanton says. “She started coming to those lectures, and she felt personal connections to people.
“I think she saw the depth of our commitment to not just driving research forward in a very narrow sense but trying to include the whole community and society in the inspiration of what we are doing. I remember her being very excited about Mars research, and I remember her being very excited about undergraduates being involved.”
Forde designed her gift to support work at the school that often is not on the radar of larger funding organizations or NASA grants. It centers on scholarship support for students, community outreach and education, and research projects.
“Vivian Forde was really forward-looking about what she wanted her gift to accomplish, and she really thought about all the ways that we could make a huge difference in the lives of our students as well as our broader community,” Wadhwa says.
“It will provide seed funds that will allow us to do some types of research projects that would otherwise have a hard time receiving funds from other sources. There will be scholarships that will allow our students, undergraduate and graduate students to be involved in actual, real research projects, cutting-edge research projects involved in scientific exploration and discovery,” she says. “It’s been shown many times at this point that students who are involved in these types of research projects, their trajectory can be significantly affected.”
The gift enable SESE to expand and enhance community outreach events to share its discoveries. In particular, the gift provides funds to maintain and upgrade SESE’s gallery of exploration, which is open to the public.
“It’s like a museum,” Elkins-Tanton says, “and we have almost 10,000 K-12 students come through there every year on school trips learning about science. We have amazing displays that are informed by the real science that we do. It’s as connected to research as possible.
“That’s something that the average university department does not have the money to do.”
Conventional sources of funding, like NASA or the National Science Foundation, are highly competitive and often constrain what a project can aim for in order to mitigate the risk of failure.
That’s well and good, Wadhwa says, but sometime high-risk projects are the ones that push the envelope and enable researchers to explore new territory. Forde’s gift will enable the school to take on riskier projects that have the potential to “make giant leaps in terms of advancing our knowledge.”
“Innovation is part of the DNA of ASU, so [this gift] will allow us to do that,” she says.
That sense of learning and exploration was also a part of Forde’s makeup, Kavan says.
“She always wanted to learn,” he says. “She was an explorer herself. She wanted to explore every nook and cranny of the Kennedy Space Center. She was always asking questions and trying to learn more about space.”
For example, OSIRIS-REx has a public website that tracks the instrument’s progress in space. After their trip to see its launch, “Vivian would send me emails saying, ‘Did you know it’s 8,326 miles away from Earth right now?’ She even had the date on her calendar when it was going to come back and land in the desert in Utah.”
“She’s one of the more passionate donors I’ve ever met,” he says. “There are many people who are passionate, but her life was truly dedicated to learning about space exploration and science and stars and the moon. I’m so glad her passion and legacy will live on though her endowment, inspiring future generations of ‘Vivians’ who have a passion for science, generosity, and people.”
Which made her a perfect partner for SESE, Elkins-Tanton says.
“Every endeavor is a human endeavor. When we are looking out into space and trying to understand it, it’s the action of people working with people. To a greater extent than anywhere else I know, ASU welcomes all comers to participate in what we’re trying to do.”
“You’re welcome to come and learn with us. You’re welcome to come and see what we’re doing. We want to be connected to our community. That’s the purpose of what we do,” she says.
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