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Dr. Dero Downing, WKU’s fourth president, dies

Dr. Dero G. Downing, fourth president of WKU, died Monday at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville. He was 89.

Dr. Dero Downing, WKU's fourth president, died April 4. He was 89.

Visitation will be Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Johnson-Vaughn-Phelps Funeral Home in Bowling Green. Funeral will be 10:30 a.m. Friday at State Street United Methodist Church in Bowling Green with visitation beginning at 9:30 a.m.

Contributions in honor of Dr. Downing can be made to the Dero and Harriet Downing Scholarship Fund in the College Heights Foundation at WKU.

Dr. Downing began his long affiliation with WKU as a student in 1939, earning his undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1943. He was a prominent student leader during his undergraduate career, serving as president of the senior class and being elected at “Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities.” He was a star member of some of Coach Ed Diddle’s finest basketball teams, including the first Western team to participate in the National Invitation Tournament in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

After graduation, Dr. Downing joined the U.S. Navy as an ensign and served as an officer on a ship carrying troops and supplies in the first wave to hit the beaches at Normandy on D-Day in June 1944.  He was engaged in naval activity across the English Channel between England and France until the end of War World II.  In late 1945 he was released from active service with the rank of lieutenant.

In 1946 he returned to Western as a mathematics teacher and basketball coach at College High School, the high school division of Western’s Training School and completed his master of arts degree at Western in 1947.  He gave up coaching in 1950 to devote full time to teaching mathematics and in 1956 was named director of the training school.

Dr. Downing received his Ed. S. degree in 1958 from George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville.  He was named registrar for the university in 1959 and director of admissions in 1962 and served as dean of business affairs before being named vice president for administrative affairs in 1965.

In 1969, Dr. Downing became WKU’s fourth president, a position he held until he resigned in 1979, being named president emeritus.  From there he became president of the College Heights Foundation where he continued to serve as Chairman of the Board.

Dr. Downing has received several honors, including honorary doctor of humanities degrees from Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro in 1970 and Morehead State University in 1974 and honorary doctor of laws degrees from Murray State University in 1972 and Eastern Kentucky University in 1979.

Dr. Downing was inducted into the second class of the WKU Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 1993 and is also a member of the WKU Army ROTC Hall of Fame. In 2002, WKU named its International Center for Dr. Downing and former international student and longtime friend Zuheir Sofia.

An etching of Dr. Downing’s likeness appears at the Guthrie Tower, a memorial to freedom and those who gave their lives defending it. He is also the namesake of WKU’s student union, the Downing University Center, which opened in 1970.

In 2010, he became the first recipient of the Warren County Environmental Stewardship Award, which was named in his honor. His son, Alex Downing, said his father was proud of the honor. The Downing family was known for spending weekend afternoons picking up litter around the Hill. “He has set a wonderful example for his children and our children,” Alex Downing said.

He was married to the former Harriet Elizabeth Yarnell.  Each of their five children are graduates of WKU, as are six of their 13 grandchildren.

Contact: Media Relations, (270) 745-4295.

5 Comments on “Dr. Dero Downing, WKU’s fourth president, dies”

  1. Jenny Cooper Cox April 5, 2011 at 9:54 am #

    Dr. Downing was a wonderful man and did LOTS for WKU! He will greatly be missed by ALL of the LIVES he has touched and will continue to touch because of what he has done on that campus!
    God Bless his wonderful wife and his excellent family! You all are in my thoughts and prayers!

  2. Buddy Connelly April 5, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    What a great man! His influence on the lives of WKU students will continue to be felt for generations. My thoughts are with his family at this time and the memories of President Downing’s kindness will be with me always.

  3. Bobbi Battle Clark April 5, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Dr. Downing and his family truly exemplify WKU. The time I spent on The Hill was enriched by their friendship with me and my family. His door was always open and his concern for Western students genuine. His faith in God and his fellow man were apparent in how he lived. To Mrs. Downing and your family, I am sorry for yor loss, but I feel so blessed in knowing you all.

  4. Dr. Rebecca Painter April 5, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Dr. Downing was a great man who never grew too important to visit with those less fortunate. My fondest memory of this great man was when he took the time to visit with my juvenile delinquents at Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center. He walked in with a cane and enjoyed a Victorian tea party with style. He spent the period conversing with my at-risk population. The time he gave them enhanced their self-esteem and gave them a greater appreciation for the wealth of knowledge that senior citizens encompassed. He received Father’s Day cards from students who had no father and he always replied with hope and encourage. Personally, he always encouraged me and helped me finally attain my Ph.D. I love him for taking the time to personally touch so many at-risk children. I hope he enjoys his unlimited chocolate drops in heaven. We will miss him. Love, Becky

  5. Beverly Williams Brown April 7, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    Dr. Downing was a great humanitarian! I met him my freshman year at an awards banquet. He was always there for me with guidance and support thru-out my four years at WKU. To the family: Thank you for sharing Dr. Downing with so many students who had their lives enriched by his presence!

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