Retired NASA engineer creates annual scholarship at Elon

Alumnus Wally Sawyer ’64 and his wife, Rae, of Tampa, Florida, make a generous gift to increase access to Elon, which is one of the top priorities of the Elon LEADS fundraising campaign.

When Wally Sawyer ’64 returned to Elon in May 2019 as one of three outstanding alumni honored by Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, he visited the McMichael Science Center. Among the first things he saw in the lobby was a portrait of the late A.L. Hook, a legendary professor of science and math as well as a mentor during Sawyer’s time on campus.​

Sawyer, who graduated from Elon with degrees in physics and mathematics before launching a 37-year career at NASA as an aerospace engineer, recalled the first exam he took as a student in Hook’s physics class. He said Hook marked mistakes on each student’s exam and explained what they had done incorrectly. But he did not place a letter or numerical grade on the exams. When a student asked why, Hook replied, “You didn’t take the test just for a grade, did you?”

It was a significant moment for a young scientist in the making. It stressed the importance of learning as opposed to outcomes. “He was there to teach. He wanted his students to understand,” says Sawyer, who is originally from Elizabeth City, N.C., and now lives in Tampa, Florida. “He instilled a love of science and what it meant.”

The lesson put Sawyer on a path to a lifetime dedicated to learning, education and innovation. That road took him to graduate school at the College of William & Mary, where he met his future wife, Rae. She was then an undergraduate student in chemistry who would go on to earn a medical degree at the Medical College of Virginia.

“You can see we’re a science-oriented family,” Rae Sawyer says with a laugh.

Because of the impact Elon had on Wally’s education and career, and the affection both have for the university, the Sawyers made a gift to create the Rae and Wally Sawyer Annual Scholarship to be given to a deserving student with verified financial need. Creating scholarships through annual, endowment and estate gifts is a top priority of the $250 million Elon LEADS Campaign.

Scholarships are also a priority for the Sawyers. Starting a scholarship for Elon students was something the couple wanted to do when they had the ability financially. Over the years, they have been loyal supporters of scholarships as well as the Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences. 

“When I think of Elon University, I think of the value of a liberal arts education and how it so well served me,” Wally Sawyer says. “It better prepared me for real-world interactions, communications, critical thinking and teamwork.”

The Sawyers say education is a tenet in their lives. They have seen situations when young people struggle to receive a quality education due to financial constraints.

“I guess we both have always thought of education as a cornerstone to really everything in life – being successful, being knowledgeable about the world and about people," Rae Sawyer says. “We are interested in helping young people who have a burning desire to learn and haven’t had the opportunity in life to pursue it, and who are also goal-oriented individuals who want to improve themselves, their family and society.”

Education was a cornerstone for success for Rae and Wally Sawyer. Rae retired from a successful career as a practicing physician in 2017. While at NASA, Wally Sawyer served in multiple roles, including as director of the High-Speed Research program office where he was responsible for leading the development of technologies in aerodynamic performances, airframe materials and structures, flight deck technology, propulsion technology and system integration to support the development of high-speed civil transport. He had a hand as a participant in some of the most significant engineering achievements by NASA. At the same time, he studied engineering management at George Washington University.

Sawyer also served as deputy director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California, deputy director of the Langley Research Center in Virginia and special assistant to the director of Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He retired in 2002 but continued serving NASA for several years in an advisory capacity. He has authored or co-authored 45 technical publications and a chapter in a technical textbook and also serves as an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“The one thing you realize in any field is that you must continue to grow and embrace change,” Sawyer says. “Elon has not only embraced change but is a leader in educational innovation. This is why they do such a great job preparing their graduates for the future.”

As a student at Elon, Wally Sawyer was much like the engaged Elon students of today—a double major and heavily involved in multiple activities. He was president of the student body and a member of the track team. “I loved Elon, I really did. I had a good time,” he says.

“We feel that Elon is a happy place. There is a comfortable feeling about Elon, the environment, the faculty, the student body and the liberal arts education they receive,” Rae Sawyer says. “We appreciate Elon and are happy to be a part of making it real for other people, too.”

About The Elon LEADS Campaign

Scholarships are one of the main funding priorities of the Elon LEADS Campaign. The university launched the public phase of the campaign in April. With a $250 million goal, Elon LEADS is the largest fundraising campaign in the university’s history and will support four main priorities: scholarships for graduates the world needs, access to engaged-learning opportunities such as study abroad, support for faculty and staff mentors who matter and Elon’s iconic campus. To date, donors have contributed $171 million toward the overall goal.

Every gift to the university—including annual, endowment, and estate and other planned gifts—counts as a gift to the campaign, which will support students and strengthen Elon for generations to come. To learn more about how you can make an impact, visit