St. Johns were a philanthropic team

Ruth-&-VirgilRuth Wilson ’46c St. John spent only a year at Manchester before transferring to Purdue, but that year left a lasting impression, says daughter Deb Mishler. After years of supporting Manchester with her husband, Virgil St. John ’43, Ruth left a $200,000 estate gift to MU earlier this year.

“The Manchester connection was really strong,” Mishler says of her mother. “It was always the friendships that were important” and she maintained contact with some of those friends for the rest of her life.

Ruth Wilson grew up on a farm near Wolcott, Ind., and followed two sisters to Manchester. She enjoyed the small college, but after a year Ruth to transferred to Purdue to pursue her dietetic degree.  While she was earning her bachelor’s degree, she continued a Manchester friendship with Virgil St. John, who was attending Purdue for graduate chemistry studies. They married in 1946.

“Mom and Dad supported many organizations over the years,” says daughter Jan Amy. “The two of them were able to do much more together than either of them could have done on their own. Dad was always quick to point out that Mom made possible many of the things that he did.”

Before graduating from Purdue, Virgil St. John spent three years working on the Manhattan Project of the Atomic Energy Commission, for which he received a Distinguished Service Award. He went on to work for Eli Lilly and Co. for 42 years, retiring in 1987 as the vice president of manufacturing operations.

For her part, Ruth St. John worked for five years as a Lilly chemist, helping with the development of the antibiotic streptomycin. When the couple moved to West Lafayette, she left Lilly and stayed home to raise Deb and her older sister, Jan. Both sisters earned pharmacy degrees and enjoyed careers in the field.

Through the years, the St. Johns gave generously of their time and treasure to the community, though Mishler says her father had the more public face. He was well known and admired in the Lafayette area. With his involvement in church, education, and the arts, he provided strong leadership and fundraising skills. A former member of MU’s Board of Trustees, he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater in 1999.

Still, says Mishler, her dad was the introvert and her mom was the extrovert in their 65-year marriage. “She was always a gatherer of people,” Mishler says of her mom, inviting Purdue students they knew to join them at West Lafayette United Methodist Church and then out for Sunday brunch.

Both farm kids – Virgil grew up in Ohio – the St. Johns were careful stewards of their resources and had a deep sense of philanthropy, says Mishler. Among their many gifts to Manchester, the St. Johns provided a chemistry laboratory in the Science Center. A plaque there reflects their spirit of giving: “Attempting to return what others have so graciously provided for us – a solid foundation for life’s journey. Virgil ’43 and Ruth Wilson St. John”

Mishler says her parents were partners in philanthropy as they were in life.  They instilled in my sister and me that “you offer your capabilities, but don’t flaunt your giving,” adds Mishler, who is married to Manchester graduate and trustee Dr. Rick Mishler ’74. “They wanted to focus on the need … they wanted attention focused on other people.”

“Giving is a learned response, many times,” says Mishler. “Mom and Dad imparted in both my sister and me the importance of giving back. And we have passed that along to our own children, so their legacy lives on.”

Estate gifts are so important for helping current and future Manchester students. Dr. L. Jeannine Petry ’75, a physician who died in 2020, left nearly a half-million dollars to her alma mater – half of it to the Michael T. Petry Scholarship Fund, named for a Manchester student killed in a traffic accident in 1987, and the other half for unrestricted use.