Giving back to recognize a special relationship

Dr. Ben Chu honors his SNC connection with a new lecture series

To say Dr. Ben Chu’s life journey has spanned a wide range of locales and challenges is an understatement. The 1955 St. Norbert College graduate came to De Pere from Wah Yan College (Afternoon School), a Jesuit Catholic High School in Hong Kong, and has forged a distinguished career in the United States. Now, through a gift to the Support What Matters campaign, Dr. Chu has created a lecture series at St. Norbert College that will emphasize the relationship between faith and reason, and the role that one’s faith plays in the development of their scholarship.

“Dr. Chu has been one of the remarkable graduates SNC has had in just about any way you define ‘remarkable,’” states Thomas Kunkel, interim president of the college. “His story is special in terms of his background and how he came to De Pere in the first place; in terms of his outstanding career as a teacher, scholar and researcher; in terms of his service to his alma mater. So it’s hardly surprising that Dr. Chu brings enormous creativity and imagination even to his philanthropy.”

The lecture series honors one of Chu’s mentors, Peter J. W. Debye. Chu had the good fortune of studying under Debye at Cornell University while completing his graduate and postdoctoral work. Debye, a highly respected physicist and physical chemist who was also a devout Catholic, had a profound influence on Dr. Chu. Chu went on to serve as a chemistry professor at the University of Kansas before moving on to SUNY Stony Brook, where he has held a role as distinguished professor, emeritus, since Jan. 1, 2017.

The first lectureship

Brother Guy Consolmagno, an American Jesuit and astronomer who has served as director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome since his appointment by Pope Francis in 2015, will kick off the lecture series on March 19, 2024. Known as “The Pope’s Astronomer,” Consolmagno was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in 2014.

Consolmagno supports the notion of religion and science working alongside one another rather than as competing ideologies – the underlying theme of the lecture series. He was featured prominently in EWTN Vaticano’s special episode in 2021 entitled “Inside the Vatican Observatory: Where Science Meets Faith.”

“Dr. Chu’s gift will make it possible to bring scientific figures of great stature to campus, as we already see with the inaugural lecture from Brother Guy,” Kunkel says. “The series is also a tremendous reinforcement of our mission in that it will be a constant reminder of the marriage of faith and reason, as well as the Norbertines’ historical commitment to scientific endeavors.”

A fortuitous link to St. Norbert College

Non-stop wars and challenging living conditions marked Dr. Chu’s childhood years in Shanghai. Yet he poured his efforts into his studies, and the primary-school principal, seeing potential in him, provided him with a scholarship so he could attend the school free of charge.

Following World War II, Chu’s family fled to Hong Kong to escape communist rule, leaving everything behind except for a small bag for each family member to carry. It was then that Chu received an appointment to meet with Father Rory Maguire, an Irish Jesuit at one of Hong Kong’s best high schools. He completed his education there and then began the process of gaining entrance to the University of Hong Kong.

Shortly thereafter, in a meeting that would change the course of Ben’s life, Maguire summoned him and asked if he would like to study in the United States. The Jesuit priest had received a letter from St. Norbert College asking him to recommend a student to go there in order to expand the diversity of the student body. The offer of a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship was too good to pass up.

A 30-day voyage on a freighter across the Pacific, followed by a series of train transports through Chicago and finally to De Pere, brought Ben Chu at last to SNC in January 1953. He quickly passed the final exams in chemistry and physics, setting him on a path to earn his Bachelor of Science degree. He attained that degree at St. Norbert, as well as his master’s degree and doctorate from Cornell, in the span of five-and-a-half years, while also working most summers.

Dr. Chu would go on to write a book based on a series of Baker Lectures delivered by his mentor at Cornell, Dr. Debye. The Baker Lectures are regarded as one of the most prestigious series of endowed lectures sponsored by a chemistry department at an American university. They serve as the inspiration for the Dr. Benjamin T. Chu Distinguished Lecture Series at SNC.

Are you interested in supporting St. Norbert College? Explore our Support What Matters website to learn more about the college’s current campaign and options for contributing to this effort.