Longtime Minnesota State Mankato professor Bill Bessler spent nearly 40 years at the University, introducing as many as 2,000 students a year to Biology 100. A quick bit of math suggests that during his tenure, tens of thousands of students probably heard him lecture at least once in that general education class.
Although Bessler, 70, officially retired from his teaching post in May 2008, he has maintained close ties with the University. At one point, he returned to teach a semester of Bio 100, and until 2012, he served as the director of a project close to his heart: the South Central/ Southwest Minnesota Regional Science and Engineering Fair for elementary and high school students hosted annually at Minnesota State Mankato.
For many students who attended school in southern Minnesota over the past 62 years, the words “science fair” probably spark vivid memories of unwieldy three-panel, tag-board displays festooned with photos, graphs and other explanatory information about their projects. Students first compete in local fairs in their own schools; winners then advance to the regional fair at the University. Regional winners can move on to competition at the state or even national level.
Bessler’s connection to the event stretches back nearly to the start of his tenure at Minnesota State Mankato in 1969. He first served as director of the fair in 1976 and continued in that role for the next two decades. After a brief absence, he returned as director in 2004 and stayed until 2012. In total, he guided the fair, with the help of numerous others, for 28 years.
“There were a number of things that were coming together when I was first asked to direct the fair,” Bessler says. “[My first fair] was our 25th. Minnesota State Mankato had had a history with the science fair for many years before I became director, although those first fairs looked much different than they do today.”
During Bessler’s turn at the helm, attendance and participation in the fair grew from roughly 275 students a year to well more than 2,000. In fact, the fair became so popular that in 1986, a decision was made to split the competition into two days. Students in grades 3-6 now compete in April or May, and older students participate in February or March. (An ill-timed blizzard in 1985 precipitated the change of dates, because it threatened to strand bus-riding youngsters from 27 different counties far from home.)
Bessler, who also served as chair of the Biology Department for 10 years, has a strong affinity for working with youth, both in academic and other settings. With his wife, Marilyn, he raised six sons. He and Marilyn were always involved with the Boy Scout programs in the area. “Our hobby has always been working with kids,” he says with a chuckle.
Bessler remains extremely fond of the science fair and planned to attend this year, even though he has retired from managing the event. He serves as its unofficial historian and laments the fact that much of the history of the fair was lost after old files were accidentally thrown out. He would welcome programs, reminiscences or other memorabilia from the fair’s early years to help fill in some of those details.
Writer Kelly O’Hara Dyer attended the regional science fair at Minnesota State Mankato as a sixth grader in 1976; she received a purple grand-prize ribbon for her age group and was in all likelihood presented a lapel pin and a check for $12.50 by Bill Bessler himself.