Generous Unrestricted Gift Seeks to Preserve High-Quality Education at Purdue

Gary and Susan Dernlan recognize the long-term value of a Purdue engineering degree.

Over the course of a 35-year career that has spanned multiple states, industries, and both the public and private sectors, Gary Dernlan (BSCEM ’81) estimates he has crossed paths with engineering graduates from more than 50 universities — and there is no doubt in his mind that Purdue alumni rise to the top.

“I got a pretty broad picture of the quality of the education that’s out there,” he says. “The absolute best employees are from Purdue. The word on the street is, beyond a doubt, that a Purdue graduate is one of the best.”

That firsthand knowledge of the value of a Purdue engineering education is a key reason why Gary and his wife, Susan (BA Communication ’82), recently made a significant estate gift in support of the Division of Construction Engineering and Management (CEM), their second such contribution.

“If you don’t have anything to compare your education to, it’s hard to know how valuable it is,” Susan says. “Gary’s experience has made us realize the value of ours, and we especially want to give back because we know the difference it’s made in our lives.”

Acquiring Knowledge Skills and Confidence

Growing up in Wisconsin, Gary always had an interest in construction. A friend of his parents who owned a construction company told him about the CEM program at Purdue, which was just a year old in 1977 when he arrived in West Lafayette. It was headed by a professor Gary still remembers fondly, Donn Hancher.

“He was an amazing guy who took an extreme interest in each student,” Gary says. “He took personal time during the summer to visit each of us at our internships. He’d come to our job sites and talk to our employers, just to make sure everything was on track.”

Gary’s first job after graduation stemmed from one of those internships. The position at Hall Contracting of Kentucky took him to Ohio, where he was responsible for several coal-fired power plants, and then to Georgia to oversee a wastewater treatment plant. After a short stint at DuPont in the mid-1980s, he switched gears to the public sector — serving first as director of engineering, public works and public utilities for the city of North Augusta, South Carolina, then as director of the Palm Beach County (Florida) water utilities department.

“Without my education, very little of this would have happened,” Gary says. “Purdue gave me extreme confidence in my abilities. I knew I was better prepared than my contemporaries, and that allowed me to move up faster and take on challenges that others wouldn’t.”

That included embarking on a number of “side projects” over the years — primarily commercial and residential real estate developments and investments. About 10 years ago, the Dernlans decided to make those side businesses their full-time careers.

“Susie is excellent on the management side, keeping the day-to-day operations running,” Gary says. “Construction’s always been my first love, so I handle that side of things. Really, it all comes down to the knowledge and skills we gained at Purdue.”

In addition to giving Purdue much of the credit for their success, the Dernlans also are committed to giving back in whatever way best supports the University’s needs. Makarand (Mark) Hastak, head of CEM and professor of civil engineering, is grateful for their flexible approach to philanthropy.

“As an academic program we rely a great deal on the generous contributions made by our alums, friends and supporters,” he says. “The Dernlans’ unrestricted support gives us the financial means to improve our program by offering scholarships, supporting student activities, improving facilities and developing faculty and staff resources.”

For Gary and Susan, whether the money goes toward scholarships, programs or facilities is irrelevant — it is all about preserving the quality of the Purdue education that has made such a difference in their lives.

“When I was at Purdue, Donn Hancher came to me and said, ‘A donor has a $2,500 scholarship. Are you interested?’ Finances were tight at the time, and it made a huge difference for me personally,” Gary recalls. “Now we’re at a point where we can give back, so others can have the same experiences and opportunities we did. It’s the right thing to do.”

To support initiatives in Construction Engineering and Management, contact Rebecca Fry, director of development, at 765-494-0023Call 765-494-0023 or RLFry@prf.org.