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Ohio couple gives $2 million to OU to establish the first endowed faculty chair in the Department of Anthropology

Robert E. Bell at an excavation of a 3,500-year-old site in Latimer County in 1973

An Ohio couple, who are avocational archaeologists with a longtime interest in Oklahoma’s prehistory, have made some history themselves with the largest gift ever to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.

Arnold and Wanda Coldiron of Aurora, Ohio, are giving $2 million to OU to establish the first endowed faculty chair in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences.  

At Mr. and Mrs. Coldiron’s request, the faculty chair is being named the Robert E. and Virginia Bell Endowed Chair in Anthropological Archaeology. It honors the memory and achievements of the late eminent archaeologist and longtime OU anthropology professor and his wife.  

“The university is deeply grateful for this generous gift from Arnold and Wanda Coldiron,” said OU President David L. Boren. “Their gift will help the Department of Anthropology to continue to be a center of excellence at OU. Their gift is a heart-warming tribute to Professor Robert Bell and his wife, Virginia.”

“We are happy to be able to make this gift to provide the recognition that Dr. Bell so richly deserved,” said Arnold Coldiron, a native of Blanchard, Okla., who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering at OU in 1955 and 1957, respectively. After military service, Coldiron began his professional career with what was then-Continental Oil Co. in Ponca City, later working in Baltimore, and various locations in Ohio. Today he owns Aurora Plastics Inc., an industrial plastics plant. Mrs. Coldiron is a former schoolteacher.

Professor Susan Vehik, chair of the OU Department of Anthropology, said the gift from Mr. and Mrs. Coldiron will fund an additional faculty member focusing on Southern Plains archaeology.

“Archaeology has the greatest number of undergraduate and graduate students in the department, and this new position will help decrease the ratio of students to faculty, thus allowing faculty to help students more than is currently possible,” she said. 

“Because part of this new faculty member’s duties will be to work with avocational or amateur archaeologists, we will be able to add additional courses in public service archaeology, which is increasingly providing jobs to undergraduates and graduates alike,” she added. “The chair holder also will develop a variety of courses and projects that will help train students in more specialized areas of research and, because the position will have built-in research funding, the number of research projects available to our students will increase.”

As a young couple who had just moved to Ponca City, Mr. and Mrs. Coldiron became actively involved in the Kay County chapter of the Oklahoma Archeological Society, providing a spark that ignited their lifelong interest in archaeological field work and digs in the state. 

Through this work, they began their friendship and association with Professor and Mrs. Bell and with OU Professor Don G. Wyckoff, who was a student and later a professional colleague of Dr. Bell’s. Like his teacher and mentor, Wyckoff has long advocated positive working relationships and good communication between professional and avocational archaeologists.

As an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, Bell participated in archaeological field work at Chaco Canyon, San Jon and Sandia Cave.  He earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago, and his doctoral research pioneered the technology of tree-ring dating in the eastern United States. After earning his doctoral degree in 1947, he joined the OU faculty, where he spent his entire academic career, retiring in 1980.  He held the distinguished title of George Lynn Cross Research Professor at OU.

Professor Bell played a key role in developing the OU Department of Anthropology and served for a time as its chairman.  His interests spanned the prehistory of Wichita and Caddo people in Oklahoma, ancient hunter-gatherers in Ecuador and the first archaeological research in New Zealand.  He founded the Oklahoma Anthropological Society in 1952 and, in 1968, helped establish the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, which is housed at OU. He died on Jan. 1, 2006, at the age of 91.

Wyckoff, who will retire from OU at the end of June after a 50-year career, is a David Ross Boyd Professor. He also is curator of the Robert E. Bell Collections at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. 

With 5 million prehistoric artifacts, the Robert E. Bell Collections represent Oklahoma's largest accumulation of evidence of the state’s prehistoric and early historic Native American residents. Among the significant Oklahoma collections are those emanating from the W.P.A. excavations at the Spiro Mounds site in LeFlore County, the Oklahoma Archeological Survey’s investigations at the Cooper Folsom site in Harper County, and OU field schools at prehistoric sites in Beaver, Washita, Marshall, McCurtain and LeFlore counties.

Wyckoff also has served as staff archaeologist for the Oklahoma River Basin Survey Project, as the first State Archeologist and director of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey. He has conducted excavations at more than 50 prehistoric sites in the state, with special interests in the Caddoan archaeological tradition in both the Arkansas and Red river basins of eastern Oklahoma, and ancient hunter-gatherer camps in eastern Oklahoma.

In addition to their most recent contribution for the endowed chair and their work at various archaeological sites, Mr. and Mrs. Coldiron are longtime supporters of Professor Wyckoff’s research.

“They are wonderful supporters, providing both financial and moral support,” Wyckoff said. “Arnold and Wanda have truly been a blessing to us.”

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