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A Tradition of Giving

Alumnus Will Bixby follows his great-grandfather in supporting Washington University

William Bixby

William "Will" K. Bixby III, AB ’79, grew up hearing stories about his family’s connection to Washington University. His great-grandfather, William K. Bixby, had been a long-serving trustee and a dedicated supporter of the university. This prompted Will and his sister, Jennifer Bixby, AB ’75, to visit the campus as high school students. “I knew how involved my great-grandfather was,” Will says, “so it was a natural place to visit—and then I realized what a good fit it would be for me.”

A Legacy Established

The first William Bixby (1857-1931) had no money for a college education and started his career as a railroad baggage handler. Over the next 15 years, he made his fortune in railroad car manufacturing and settled in St. Louis, where he eventually became one of the city’s leading philanthropists.

William loved art and old manuscripts, and he filled his home with the work of great artists and historical figures. In addition to hundreds of rare books, William’s collection included letters from Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses Grant, Charles Dickens, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Queen Victoria.

“My great-grandfather loved the arts and loved learning,” Will says—fascinations that inspired William’s interest in the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum. They also made him particularly devoted to Washington University, because, as Will observes, “Wash U was able to blend the arts and education.”

William served on the university’s Board of Trustees for 27 years, including terms as vice president and president. He arranged to bring the St. Louis School of Fine Arts to the Washington University campus, and in 1921, he provided for the construction of the College of Art’s Bixby Hall. His generosity extended to the School of Medicine as well, where he endowed the professorship currently held by Timothy Eberlein, MD, director of the Siteman Cancer Center. William bequeathed much of his artwork to Bixby Hall and much of his collection of rare books and manuscripts to Washington University’s Olin Library.

A Legacy Continued

Four decades later, Will enrolled at Washington University and was immediately impressed with his fellow students. “My classmates were very smart, ambitious and hard working,” he recalls.  “The academic environment and the rigorous course load at Washington University helped to develop my work ethic, which was beneficial in graduate school and throughout my career.” Will’s nephew Dylan Bixby, BS ’08, and his niece Elise Bixby, AB ’10, graduated from Washington University as well, and his cousin William Sheldon, BS ’78, is also an alumnus.

Recent generations of Bixbys have continued William’s tradition of giving to the university. Will is a generous supporter of the University Libraries, where he has made a campaign commitment to preserve the rare books and manuscripts donated by his great-grandfather. “I see rare books and handwritten letters as almost a lost art,” Will says, and he values Olin Library’s stewardship through its Department of Special Collections.

University Libraries

University Librarian Jeffrey Trzeciak stresses that special collections make the libraries distinctive and add to the university’s reputation. “Special collections are foundational, because they usually provide the first source of evidence for researchers,” says Meredith Evans, associate university librarian and head of the Department of Special Collections. “The materials found there can’t be duplicated—they’re the first and only of their kind.” She notes that the Bixby Collection is especially valuable for its extensive personal correspondence.

“University Libraries are at the heart of the campus,” Trzeciak says. “They’re the physical center and the intellectual heart. When you give to the libraries, you’re touching every single student and professor, and you’re giving to the entire university.”

Will Bixby says, “My great-grandfather loved books, and he loved learning, and he saw Washington University as a center of both. It’s important to me to continue the legacy of supporting Washington University that my great-grandfather started long ago.”

To give to Washington University Libraries, use our online giving form.

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