The University of Kentucky's biggest donor made history again: UK announced Thursday that businessman Carol Martin "Bill" Gatton would top his $14 million donation in 1995 with $20 million for the university's expansion of its Student Center.
"Bill Gatton's unwavering support for the University of Kentucky has had a profound impact on the students, faculty and staff on campus, and on higher education in the commonwealth," President Eli Capilouto said at a news conference announcing the gift. "Through his unprecedented, inspiring and enduring support, and his invaluable service on the UK Board of Trustees, Bill is helping us meet the challenges we face today so that we can move the University of Kentucky boldly forward into the future."
Gatton, 82, directed his last gift to the College of Business named in his honor. His new gift will go toward the $175 million renovation of the Student Center, scheduled for completion in 2017.
Gatton's philanthropy to UK now totals more than $45 million, but the impact on the university is nearly $57 million, with some of his gifts having been matched by the state's Bucks for Brains program. He is UK's single largest donor and has made three of the top six gifts in UK's history.
At the announcement ceremony, Capilouto and Gatton noted that it had taken a year to persuade Gatton to make his gift public.
"I reluctantly, finally gave in, but I didn't know it was going to be this big," Gatton said of the event in the Student Center ballroom, filled with friends, families, politicians and other dignitaries.
In his rambling, folksy speech ("my wife called me last night and reminded me not to talk too long,") Gatton talked about his childhood in Bremen in Muhlenberg County, his time at UK, his life as a car salesman and why he has not retired. He compared himself to a turtle on a fence post — "that didn't get there by itself, and I know there's an awful lot of people who helped me in my business and other things," referring to his successful careers in car dealerships, banking and real estate.
Gatton said he thought he'd retire at 40 but kept working through his 60s; now, at 82, "I'll keep on working, 'cause I want to try to make more money so I can give it to the University of Kentucky."
"I'm hoping my gift will leverage and attract others to give so all of it together can be a lot bigger than I give. The more we can put into this university ... the more it's going to benefit everybody in this state — as John Kennedy said, it will raise all boats when you invest in education."
As a thank you, Capilouto and basketball Coach John Calipari unveiled a No. 1 basketball jersey with Gatton's name on the back.
Gatton graduated from UK in 1954 with a business degree. After a stint in the Army, he earned a master's degree in business at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in finance and banking.
While at UK, Gatton worked as a sales associate at L.R. Cooke Chevrolet in Lexington. After receiving his master's, he opened one of the first Volkswagen dealerships in Kentucky. Eventually, he owned nine automobile dealerships in Tennessee, Alabama and Texas.
He lives in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Gatton also made investments in banking. In 1981, he formed Area Bancshares of Owensboro, which grew to become the largest bank holding company headquartered in Kentucky, owning 17 banks with 65 branch offices across the state. Area Bancshares had $3 billion in assets when he sold it to BB&T in 2002.
Gatton has been involved in major real estate ventures in multiple states, including the Beaumont development in Lexington.
In 1985, Gatton formed his own charitable foundation and since then has made many philanthropic gifts.
Gatton also has given significantly to the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science, a residential high school on the campus of Western Kentucky University. He made the lead gift to the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy at East Tennessee State University, and he has made substantial gifts to several other educational institutions.
Gatton also has given to more than 2,300 public school teachers in eastern Tennessee and western Virginia to buy educational supplies for their students.
He has stayed involved with the UK Gatton College of Business. Last year, he and three other donors contributed a combined $23 million to the $65 million renovation and expansion of the building on South Limestone.
The $175 million renovation and expansion of the Student Center is part of an ambitious $1 billion building program that Capilouto started after he got to UK in 2011, trying to attract students with better dorms and other amenities.
The larger center will feature more room for student organizations and student dining, along with a larger bookstore. It also will incorporate the 1938 ballroom and 1924 Alumni Gymnasium.
Gatton praised Capilouto for the university's forward momentum, which he hoped his gift would continue. He closed with a poem called The Bridge Builder by Will Allen Dromgoole, a Tennessee author and poet.
Gatton read the poem, clearly so moved by its words that he had to stop to wipe his eyes:
"This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."