WEST LAFAYETTE — A towering figure in the history of Purdue University has died. Dr. Steven Beering, was president of the school for 18 years from 1983-2000. He was 87 years old.
“The terrible tyranny that brought about World War II bestowed an unintended blessing on Indiana, Purdue University, and America when it sent the family of a young Steve Beering to our country,” said Purdue President Mitch Daniels. “His 18-year leadership of our institution was but one chapter in an epic life of serial achievement. He and Jane will rest together on our campus’s Slayter Hill, and forever in our memories and in the annals of the greatest Boilermakers.”
At the time of Beering’s retirement, his name had appeared on the diplomas of more than half of the university's living alumni. He called them all — alumni, students, faculty, staff and friends — the "Purdue family".
In a press release from Purdue, Beering was credited with expanding the school's international efforts, growing its liberal arts programs, promoting diversity, adding 20 major campus buildings and taking fundraising to new levels.
Beering came to Purdue after serving as dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine and director of the Indiana University Medical Center. He was in the Air Force for 12 years, during which he became an adviser to the U.S. surgeon General and a consultant to NASA. He was a physician to the nation's first astronauts and to President Dwight Eisenhower.
The Indiana Historical Society named Beering as a Living Legend in 2013.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic there will not be immediate services. A celebration of life is planned for the future when conditions allow.
See an RTV 6 report from 1983 when Beering arrived at Purdue
Read more about Beering's life here, courtesy of Purdue University:
Steven Beering was born Aug. 20, 1932, in Berlin and spent most of his early years in Hamburg, where his father, Stephen, managed two retail furniture stores before World War II. As the Allies rained bombs on Hamburg, he and his mother, Alice, and younger brother, John, sheltered with neighbors in their basement. A four-day raid in July 1943 set off firestorms and claimed 77,000 civilian casualties. It also destroyed their home, and left a million residents homeless.
The boys and their mother were sent to work on a farm labor camp south of Nuremburg while their father in Berlin feared them dead. It would be years before their father tracked them down with the aid of the American Red Cross.
The future Purdue president was just 11 years old when he was taken to the camp. The war and its aftermath interrupted several years of his public schooling, but his mother, a French nurse, home-schooled her sons as much as circumstances allowed. After the war, the family returned to Hamburg, then moved to London with the assistance of cousins there, and finally arrived in New York Harbor on the MV Britannic on July 24, 1948.
“My father, my brother, and I were standing at the railing of the ship as it came into the harbor,” Beering said. “It was early in the morning and there was this fog. The mist parted, and there was a shaft of sunlight that hit the statue just as we were coming up to the Ellis Island area. It was magic, absolutely magic, just like in a movie. And my father said, ‘There she is, the Statue of Liberty. Never forget this moment. This is the signal to you to make something out of yourself.'"
The family settled near his grandparents in Pittsburgh when Beering was not quite 16. Years later, he reflected, "I had lost five years of school during the most formative years of a person's life." He had a lot of education to catch up on, yet he set his sights on becoming a physician.
"I wanted to make a difference and help people, and I wanted to go into medicine," he said. "I had seen so much disease and problems during the war years."
Despite being far behind in classroom work, he earned straight A’s, and then enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he met Jane Pickering, who would become his wife. He graduated with his bachelor's degree summa cum laude in 1954 and went on to finish medical school in 1958. He worked his way through the undergraduate years with the help of scholarships and income earned teaching French and German at Pitt. For medical school, he received a Mellon Fellowship, a full scholarship.
"That scholarship made an enormous difference. In fact, that's what gave me the idea years later for the Beering Scholarships at Purdue," he said. Beering raised private funds for the scholarship endowment, which covers all educational expenses for a bachelor's degree and the opportunity to pursue two other graduate degrees at Purdue and a medical degree at the Indiana University School of Medicine. The Beerings established a similar scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh.
Beering always said that on the day he arrived at Purdue to be announced as its next president, it was a cold and cloudy February. As he and Jane approached the campus, however, "the biggest rainbow we ever had seen" appeared over the campus. They took it as an omen of good things to come.
Among the memorable events during his presidency, Beering hosted a visit by President Ronald Reagan and two reunions for Purdue's astronaut alumni, who now number 25. Two of those who attended, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan — the first and most recent people on the moon — also served as campaign chairs for Beering's largest fundraising effort, the Vision 21 Campaign, which raised more than $330 million. It was the largest campaign for any public university in Indiana at that time.
"Dr. Beering was very good at cultivating donors," said J. Timothy McGinley, the chairman of the Board of Trustees when Beering retired. "He was able to inspire and encourage people who wanted to give back so others could have the same life-transforming experience that they had had."
As the university grew, Beering often said, "There is no limit to what we can achieve if we don't care who gets the credit."