Sowing and Reaping

Farmer’s son Vic Thalacker helps cultivate future Pointers

Growing up on a farm can teach a young person quite a lot. They learn the value of hard work, and the necessity of carrying out responsibilities. “You reap what you sow” becomes something of a personal motto. Dealing on a daily basis with fertilizer, insecticides, soil fertility and animal feed also has the propensity to impart quite a bit about chemistry.

Such seems to have been the case with Victor “Vic” Thalacker, who was raised on his family’s farm in Central Wisconsin. He credits his upbringing with sparking his interest in chemistry, and his high school chem teacher, Mr. Lantz, with keeping the metaphorical Bunsen burner flickering. Continuing his education was a potent dream for Thalacker, but also a complicated one.

“At the time I was graduating from high school, I knew very little about going to college, since my dad was a farmer and did not graduate from high school,” he says. Then there was the matter of figuring out how to pay tuition. His father, who greatly encouraged his son’s desire to continue his education, contributed as much as he could. Thalacker worked summers to help close the financial gap. One of those jobs was with 3M in St. Paul.

Thalacker chose to attend UW-Stevens Point based partly on his Aunt Loretta’s experience at the former Central Wisconsin State Teacher’s College, but also because it was close to home. His intention was to focus on pre-engineering for a couple of years at UWSP, then transfer to an engineering-focused school to complete his degree. That was before he met Chemistry Prof. Roland Trytten.

“Dr. Trytten had a very good sense of humor,” Thalacker recalls, “which he displayed regularly in our laboratory classes. He especially liked to show his excitement about some new discovery or other, and challenged us to think of alternate possibilities for our work. He made research something to have fun with and to strive for.”

Classes with Trytten convinced Thalacker to stay at UWSP and obtain a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, with a minor in mathematics. He earned an organic chemistry doctorate from the University of Arizona in 1968. He began working at 3M immediately after defending his Ph.D. dissertation, working in the company’s duplicating, new business ventures and decorative products divisions. From 1980 through to his retirement from 3M in 2002, Thalacker toiled mainly as a corporate researcher. The job afforded him the opportunity to travel the world, working with 3M employees in Asia and throughout Europe.

Thalacker also had occasion to visit several colleges and universities across the United States and Europe, working in collaboration with these institutions on research and recruiting from among their ranks of promising students.

“These bright young scientists and engineers invented many new processes and products that are today part of the 3M process or product lines,” he notes proudly. “Many of these new hires have gone on to important positions within 3M and have contributed significantly to the company’s successes.”

Among the pool of talented younger professionals is his son, Jason, a material scientist who currently is “working on products for the iPhone that some of my researchers invented in the 1990’s, before there was a cell-phone need for them,” says Thalacker.

Over the years it had come to Thalacker’s attention that several of the universities from which he recruited had set up endowed scholarships that enabled bright but financially struggling students—as he himself has once been—to achieve academic success.

“Since I was in a position to give something back to the universities that I had attended, I would try to start one,” he says. “In addition, 3M had some matching funds for employees or retirees who contributed to universities. I took advantage of these matching funds to supplement what I could contribute alone.”

He and his wife, Connie, established the Thalacker-Trytten Scholarship at UWSP in 2008. “I felt that since Professor Trytten was such an exciting scholar that a jointly named scholarship would be appropriate to help honor him.” The annual award is presented to high-achieving UW-Stevens Point students majoring in chemistry, physics or mathematics. Candidates also must take on a leadership role on campus and within the Stevens Point community, and declare their intent to teach/pursue graduate studies.

“I thought it very important to keep both scholarship and community involvement as pillars in the scholarship requirements,” says Thalacker, who also has established a fellowship at the University of Arizona.

He gives high marks to members of the UWSP community who have helped set up and maintain the scholarship, including UWSP Foundation staffers, as well as former College of Letters and Sciences deans Lance Grahn and Christopher Cirmo. “I especially appreciate the work of (L&S Development Director) Tony Romano in the last few years,” Thalacker adds. “He does an excellent job of maintaining contact and in keeping me up to date on the scholarship recipients.”

Since his retirement from 3M, Thalacker has participated in several philanthropic endeavors, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and Global Health Ministries, among other organizations. After traveling to Tanzania in 2003, he joined Saint Paul Partners, a faith-based nonprofit that helps people in the East African country obtain clean, safe drinking water. He was elected to the organization’s board in 2005.

“We are working closely with the people of Tanzania to develop processes that work for them,” he says.

Thalacker also indulges in more typical retirement fare, such as playing golf and tennis. He and Connie travel extensively, and when back home in Stillwater, they enjoy digging in the dirt, cultivating half an acre of perennials. On a related note, up until 2012 Thalacker owned and operated Greenwood Nursery, a small “dig your own” business that helped him stay connected to his farming roots.

And, of course, he also stays connected to both his alma maters through endowed giving.

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to contribute to both my undergrad and grad schools in terms of an endowed scholarship,” Thalacker says. “I also feel a sense of ‘pass it forward,’ … and I hope that others will be in positions to do the same in the future. In particular, my hope is that the scholarship recipients will take home this message.”