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Alum donates $10M to ASU; WWII vet honors professor who taught him 70 years ago

by Debra Hale-Shelton | April 4, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Neil Griffin of Kerrville, Texas, announces a $10 million gift to his alma mater, Arkansas State University.

He went to college on the GI bill after World War II and in 1948 earned his degree in 2½ years. He later headed corporations but never forgot how much an accounting instructor at Arkansas State College in Jonesboro had helped him.

Now 91, Texas businessman Neil Griffin returned to his native state and on Tuesday donated $10 million to his alma mater, now Arkansas State University. He also committed to an estate gift, which ASU said means his total gift will likely surpass the $14.7 million gift that the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation made to UCA between 2008 and 2011.

Together, Griffin's two gifts will make it the largest individual gift in ASU's history.

The ASU board of trustees on Tuesday approved naming the business college at the ASU System's Jonesboro campus the Neil Griffin College of Business.

"It is only fitting that the first named college in the ASU System recognize the career and generosity of one of our own," ASU System President Chuck Welch said in a news release.

The $10 million gift was given outright rather than over a period of years. Forty percent of the money will be used to endow student scholarships, said Jeff Hankins, vice president of strategic communications of the ASU System.

The remainder of the endowment will go to help students in other ways and and go for faculty development, both in salary and in enhancements for such efforts as research, according to Welch and Hankins.

The gift "will allow us to recruit and retain the cream of the crop with faculty and give them the resources to conduct cutting-edge research," Welch said in an interview.

The estate gift -- the exact amount of which ASU said it does not yet know -- also will provide significant future enhancements, the university said.

Welch told a large audience at the Jonesboro campus that Griffin's gift will "impact our faculty and our students for many, many, many years to come, long past the time that any of us are even on this earth."

Among other things, the Griffin gift will establish the H.B. Foster Bowdon Chair of Accounting with 10 percent of the funds; the Neil Griffin Dean of Business, 20 percent; and the Neil Griffin Professor of Entrepreneurship, 2.5 percent.

The endowment also creates business scholarships and dedicates 2.5 percent of the money for a student-investment fund for use by students in ASU's wealth management programs.

In honor of Griffin's wife, the endowment will donate 5 percent for the Gena Griffin International Travel Fund. Also planned is the Griffin Excellence Fund to provide discretionary funds for the new Griffin Dean of Business; it will get 20 percent of the endowment.

Griffin said the Bowdon Chair is a tribute to "a wonderful professor" who helped Griffin when he was an accounting student 70 years ago.

Griffin recalled in a speech Tuesday that he and a buddy "ran away and joined the Navy" in 1943. That meant not graduating from Nettleton High School and serving his country in the Pacific theater. He spent 31 months in the Navy, got out on Feb. 4, 1946, took a college entrance exam and began college exactly one week later, on Feb. 11, 1946.

A native of the Needham community near Jonesboro, Griffin worked part-time jobs but also recalled, "I got a scholarship. I had the GI bill."

At the college, Bowdon worked with dozens of students who were war veterans.

"My father told stories of how these men were focused and serious," Dudley Bowdon, the teacher's son, recalled in the news release. "That Mr. Griffin remembers my dad and that more than 50 years later he wanted to remember him with this endowed chair is one of the most touching things our family can imagine."

Since arriving at the Jonesboro campus, ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse said he has "heard many stories from our alumni about the professor or the staff member who reached out to mentor, to assist or to guide them through their time in Jonesboro. For Mr. Griffin, it was Foster Bowdon, who gave up time on weekends and during summer breaks to work independently with Neil on his accounting classes, which allowed him to graduate in just 2½ years."

After graduation, the now semiretired Griffin entered professional accounting, later moved into banking and became chief executive officer of two publicly held corporations. He now lives in Kerrville, Texas.

The Griffin family's philanthropy has extended to ASU before with a $5 million scholarship endowment in 2012. The family also has given to cancer treatment and research, fine arts and other causes across the country, ASU said.

ASU said the $10 million gift surpasses three recent individual gifts that were at or near $5 million. They include John Allison's $5,000,001 gift to the athletic department's North End Zone project in December, Allison's $5 million donation to the expansion and renovation of Centennial Bank Stadium in 2013, and the $4.5 million gift from the Fowler family to build Fowler Center in 1998.

In a letter to ASU, Gov. Asa Hutchinson cited the "lasting influence of Neil's college accounting teacher, H.B. Foster Bowdon."

[DOCUMENT: Read governor's letter on donation]

In Griffin, Hutchinson said, the state is "proud to have someone who never forgot his roots or the place and people who played an essential role in his life."

In his speech, Griffin said many people, including Bowdon, have made positive changes in his life.

Griffin said he later learned that Bowdon was only about eight years older than he. "But he was a good teacher."

"I grew up as a fundamental Methodist who was taught if you were blessed, you were supposed to give to others," Griffin said. "And that's the way I've lived my life."

Griffin said his father had a fifth-grade education and his mother, an eighth-grade one. "They encouraged me."

"I really wish my mom and dad could be here," he said.

A Section on 04/04/2018

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