OSU’s 12th president continued his impact as a volunteer and philanthropist

January 16, 2024


Oregon State University President Emeritus John V. Byrne will be remembered for his commitment to excellence and advancing the university’s global reputation. In addition to his far-reaching impact as a scientist, educator and administrator, his leadership as a philanthropist and volunteer made a lasting impact on the university and the Corvallis community. Byrne died on Jan. 11 at age 95. Read the OSU announcement.

A marine geologist with degrees from Hamilton College, Columbia University and the University of Southern California, Byrne began teaching at Oregon State in 1960, eventually becoming the first dean of oceanography, a program that is now part of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS). After serving as the leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C., he returned to Corvallis to serve as the university president in 1984. OSU has been recognized among the top three oceanography programs in the world, and two other OSU-affiliated leaders, Jane Lubchenco and Rick Spinrad, have followed in Byrne’s footsteps to lead NOAA.

During Byrne’s 11-year presidency, OSU faced challenges from major reductions in state funding for higher education. “John worked hard, and successfully, to increase support for the university, setting the stage for modern fundraising at Oregon State,” said Shawn L. Scoville, OSU Foundation president and CEO. “He wanted the university to be recognized for distinction, and as president, and later as a volunteer and philanthropist, he prioritized areas where OSU could excel – from oceanography to music.”

In an OSU oral history interview, Byrne said one of the first things on his agenda as president was the library: It was underfunded and simply didn’t have enough space. That had ramifications: “Here we had the most significant research institution in higher education in Oregon, and yet we were not part of an association of research libraries.”

Working in partnership with OSU Foundation staff and volunteers, Byrne was instrumental in the $40 million+ library expansion that was completed in 1999; the initiative included a $10 million lead gift from the Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation. Support for the university grew in other ways. For example, at the beginning of Byrne’s presidency, the university had only one endowed chair; by the end, donors had created 21 endowed faculty position funds. (This number has grown to 182 today.)

In retirement, Byrne contributed to state and national commissions, including leading the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State Land Grant Universities. He also remained engaged in the Corvallis community and at the university. He served on boards for the Honors College, Valley Library and CEOAS. Members of the 1868 Society, Byrne and his wife Shirley generously supported these programs – and especially music. They led a grassroots effort to raise the necessary funds to bring a new Steinway concert grand piano to the LaSells Stewart Center, helped found Corvallis-OSU Piano International, and created endowed scholarships, program funds and a concertmaster fund for the Corvallis-OSU Symphony Orchestra, the longest continually operating orchestra in the state.

While Byrne will be remembered for his leadership and focus on promoting and supporting the university’s distinction, he was also kind and had a great sense of humor, Scoville said. “John, along with emeriti presidents Ed Ray and Becky Johnson, made remarks at the OSU Foundation’s 75th anniversary celebration last May. He took the opportunity, with tongue in cheek, to ‘set the record straight.’ He stole the show,” Scoville said. “He and Shirley continued to ‘show up’ for OSU long after his presidency. But what I will most remember about John is that he made everyone he met feel special. I will miss him.”

Byrne was preceded in death by a daughter, Lisa Kay Barnhardt (Mike Barnhardt, deceased), and is survived by his wife Shirley, daughters Donna Byrne and Karen Byrne (Mike Dickey), son Steven Byrne (Holly) and four grandchildren: Adiv Paradise, Liat Paradise, Lauren Byrne and Quentin Byrne.

The family has requested that those wishing to make gifts in Dr. Byrne’s memory consider the following funds:

  • John and Shirley Byrne College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) Endowment Fund
  • John and Shirley Byrne OSU Library Support Endowment Fund  
  • Shirley and John Byrne Music Scholarship Endowment Fund 
  • Shirley and John Byrne Piano Series Endowment Fund

Photo: John Byrne made remarks at the OSU Foundation's 75th anniversary celebration in May 2023.