VSU’s biggest gifts highlight can-do spirit gained at historically black schoolJune 01, 2011 6:00 AM
by Robin Farmer
The legacy of three deceased alumni whose lives were shaped at Virginia State University decades ago lives on in the two biggest gifts in the Ettrick-based institution’s history.
Between last June and January, the historically black university received the gifts, including a $1.5 million grant from the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation that will endow scholarships, student and faculty travel, and an academic achievement prize. Lewis, a 1965 graduate, attended VSU on an athletic scholarship. He went on to Harvard Law School and became the first African-American to build a billion-dollar company, TLC Beatrice International.
Another $1 million came from Benita, Warren and Fred Thompson on behalf of their late parents, Ruby and Fred Thompson Sr., VSU graduates who ingrained in their children a love for learning. The siblings founded Herndon-based Thompson Hospitality in 1992. It is the largest minority-owned food service management company in the U.S.
For Lewis, who died in 1993 at the age of 50, helping his alma mater was a priority, says Beverly A. Cooper, vice president of the foundation and Lewis’ aunt. It is the foundation’s intention to support all the educational institutions he attended, she says.
“The grant was given to VSU because this is where he received his undergraduate degree, and also where he was given the opportunity to attend the summer session at Harvard Law School. We wanted to give the grant before the retirement of President Eddie Moore to recognize the many accomplishments and advancements made during his tenure,” she says. (Moore retired as VSU president on June 30, 2010, and was succeeded by Dr. Keith T. Miller.)
VSU received $1 million from the foundation last June and will get an additional $250,000 this month (June) and another $250,000 in June 2012. The VSU business school, which has 1,200 students, was renamed the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business.
Warren Thompson, president and chairman of Thompson Hospitality, credits VSU for infusing a can-do mindset in his parents. His mother earned an undergraduate degree there while his father earned a master’s degree.
“We lost my father in 1993 and my mother passed away two and a half years ago,” Thompson says. “Over the last couple of years we were trying to decide how to honor them, and we decided to start at Virginia State University, which is also one of our clients. And we have a long relationship with the university in terms of providing food service. All of those things coming together made it the right thing to do for us.”
The Thompsons gave VSU a $200,000 check earlier this year with the remainder allotted over the next four years for scholarships in hospitality and business programs. The Thompsons also give annual scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 to all the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that their company serves.
Thompson and Cooper hope the gifts help alumni realize that VSU is worthy of major support. Currently, about 12 percent of alumni donate, says Tom Reed, VCU’s director of university relations. “While this may seem small, it is exceptional for a public HBCU and ranks among the country’s best rate for peer institutions. Donations across all areas have increased in the past year.”
The arrival of the gifts within a six-month period was coincidental but fitting, says Thompson, who considered Lewis a role model. “Ironically when I started my company ... over 18 years ago I was looking for some of the original equity funding. I had turned to Reginald Lewis about investing in my company,” he recalls. Thompson visited his office but was unable to meet with Lewis. He left his business plan and a couple of days later Lewis called.
“He said he would raise $2 million and would give it to me for 85 percent of the company. I told him, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ He was one of the people I had admired as a young entrepreneur. Even though we had not met face-to-face, he was a mentor to me because of the things he was able to do in business. I was pleased to find out that we both had made a contribution to Virginia State University.”
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