Giving back at the heart of Debby Dilks’ career at UMKC  

The project manager and student advisor in the School of Computing and Engineering will retire next year after more than three decades 


May 3, 2016

According to her job title, Debby Dilks is a project manager and student advisor in the School of Computing and Engineering. According to the history books, though, she’s much more than that.

During her more than 30 years at UMKC, Dilks has been a surrogate mother-of-the-groom in more than one student’s wedding. She’s been a de facto marriage counselor and a general life coach, too. And she has given tens of thousands of dollars — some 350 individual gifts — to support the school she’s come to love so much.

“Debby is an outstanding employee, no doubt,” said Kevin Z. Truman, dean of the School of Computing and Engineering (SCE). “But she is so much more; she was a driving force in helping to keep this school in Kansas City and at UMKC in 2001. Her dedication to SCE and her impact on our students, past and present, have been nothing short of extraordinary. She is one of the key people the SCE alums seek out when they return to campus, on social media, or by email. She becomes a lifelong friend to many of these alums.”

When Dilks retires a year from now, Truman said, she will be missed for the work she does each day, as well as for all the extras she has given, including the many generous donations of time and money that benefit the SCE and its students.

Dilks joined UMKC in 1984 when she took a job on the university’s Independence campus. Dilks eventually moved to the Volker campus where she works today. Over the years, her responsibilities changed, too, and over time touched on virtually every computing and engineering discipline.

The SCE has changed, too. When Dilks joined UMKC, the programs fell under the University of Missouri-Columbia’s engineering school. In those years, Dilks said, there were many times she and her colleagues weren’t sure the Kansas City branch would survive.

Of course, the program did survive, eventually moving out from under Columbia’s umbrella and evolving into the current school. Today, the SCE is UMKC’s fastest-growing and third-largest school.

Dilks said it was the early years, watching passionate faculty like Don Smith, George Hauck, Stan Niu, Quinton Bowles and Dave Skitek “who fought so hard to keep our program afloat” that inspired her to give back financially whenever she could.

“When my husband changed jobs and the children were raised, I found myself in the position to have some extra money, so, continuing that fight to survive, I started donating to the various causes in our school,” Dilks said.

Over the years, her gifts touched the Steel Bridge program; Concrete Canoe; BAJA Buggy; and the school’s competitive robotics team, the one she has advised since it started at the school more than a dozen years ago.

In addition, Dilks has given generously to scholarships, so more talented students could afford an education:

  • In 2002, Dilks conceived of and became the first donor to the SCE endowed faculty/staff scholarship, a fund to which many current faculty and staff contribute regularly.
  • In 2006, she endowed the Doris Markham Swinney Scholarship in memory of her mother. The scholarship is awarded to incoming freshmen in the SCE engineering program, with a preference given to qualified female students with substantiated financial need.
  • In 2010, Dilks converted the annual Martin Ashton Swinney Memorial Scholarship to an endowed scholarship. The fund, in memory of her father, supports undergraduate Missouri residents pursuing an education in electrical and computing engineering.  

“All of it,” Dilks said, “was to keep the engineering program going.”

Dilks knows leaving UMKC and all her friends at the SCE next year won’t be easy. And she realizes that some of her current advisees aren’t very happy with her decision to retire.  

But, she has a book to finish writing, grandchildren to spend time with, and other adventures to look forward to.

“It’s just time,” Dilks said.