February 26, 2008

Geology graduate's gift supports field course

by Stacey Vinson


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Jim Lightner fondly remembers his summer field geology course as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. That's why he chose to give $100,000 to establish an endowment to help ensure the continuation of the course.

The 1974 SIUC graduate's donation is a matching gift, meaning that the geology department must raise an additional $100,000 in order to receive the full donation.

The main focus of the six-week field program is to teach students how to operate as field geologists. They perform collection, analysis and interpretation of geological information and apply classroom theory to real-world problems in places such as the Black Hills and Yellowstone National Park.

According to Lightner, CEO of Orion Energy Partners in Denver, the field course was instrumental in his career. "This course was the culmination of my geology education. It was a wonderful way to practically use everything I had learned in the classroom setting. The experience convinced me that I wanted to pursue a career as a working geologist. I appreciate having had the opportunity to participate in the program."

Steven Esling, chair of the SIUC geology department, said he appreciates and embraces the challenge set forth by Lightner.

"Like many of our alumni, Jim has fond memories of the summer field course and wanted to make a significant gift that would serve as a catalyst for supporting the course," Esling said. "We are excited about the challenge and the gift."

Esling said the department has already raised $30,000.

Rickey N. McCurry, vice chancellor for institutional advancement and CEO of the SIU Foundation, said the University is appreciative of Lightner's generosity.

"Mr. Lightner realizes the importance of offering geology students a hands-on experience. He has stepped forward in a big way to extend support to our current and future students," he said. "Mr. Lightner embodies what the Opportunity Through Excellence campaign is all about. SIU Carbondale has a history of loyal graduates who are willing to provide opportunities for students in all areas of study, and he is maintaining this long-standing tradition."

The summer field program, based in the Beartooth Range near Red Lodge, Mont., has been taught annually since 1970 and draws students from many different universities nationwide and globally. The course is important to geology students because only 15 percent of universities in the country offer such an opportunity.

The Beartooth Mountains boast some of the highest elevations in the lower 48 states, and have 20 peaks that are taller than 12,000 feet. The Beartooths are considered to be one of the most biologically unique mountain ranges in the country, with almost 400 species of plants and wildlife.

After receiving his bachelor's degree from SIUC in geology, Lightner went on to attain a Fulbright Fellowship, allowing him to earn his master's degree in Australia. Orion Energy is a small privately held oil and gas exploration and production company that was founded approximately three years ago with Lightner as CEO since its beginning. Prior to Orion, he served as chairman, president and CEO of Tom Brown Inc., a public oil and gas company.

Lightner began his career as a petroleum geologist through a summer job at Amoco in Houston, which came about through an interview arranged in the geology department at SIUC.

"The fact that Amoco regularly recruited at SIUC is very likely the only reason that I ended up in the oil and gas industry," he said. "This demonstrates the vital importance of universities having active recruitment relationships with many companies in many industries."

After his time in Australia, Lightner returned to Amoco.

Lightner said the summer field program is even more important today with the current belief that the United States is losing ground to the rest of the world in science. He also urged others to give back.

"I ask every geology alumni to remember how much their experience at the summer field program meant to them and to help in any way they can to keep it going."

The geology department at SIUC includes 11 faculty members and about 70 undergraduate and graduate students. The faculty and students are active across the country and worldwide, with current projects on five continents.