Woman Power

Woman Power

A new softball stadium and ­basketball practice facility taking shape in Knoxville are changing the campus landscape and boosting UT’s reputation as a powerhouse of intercollegiate athletics. Three women made seven-figure gifts to help make these projects happen. Why? The reasons are as interesting as the women themselves.

“I want to help give our athletes the best facilities so they can achieve their dreams.”

Maybe because she has dreamed big–and put foundations under those dreams–Brenda Lawson wants to help UT’s athletes do the same. Lawson has pledged $5 million, including $2.5 million for the new basketball practice facility now under construction next to Thompson-Boling Arena, and $1 million for renovations to Neyland Stadium. The new women’s basketball practice court will bear her name.

“I wasn’t really comfortable with that at first,” the Cleveland, Tennessee, entrepreneur says frankly. “But I’ve come to see that having my name on the court can be a good thing if it inspires other women to make gifts.”

Lawson’s no stranger to philanthropy, and UT already has been on the receiving end of her generosity. In fact, the $5-million pledge brings her total commitments to $10 million. Her name is in big, tall letters on the facade of the Toby McKenzie and Brenda Lawson Athletic Center, and she’s also made gifts to UT Chattanooga, where her son graduated and her daughter is a current student. Her most recent UTC pledges are for a pedestrian mall, the chancellor’s excellence endowment, and an endowment for the Brenda Lawson Women’s Success Program.

Education is a smart place to invest your dollars, she says. “Education is the most vital thing you can give to. Any time you can help a young person, that’s a blessing. And I think it’s particularly important to support our state university.” Lawson will be co-chair of the Campaign for Tennessee, the first woman to chair a major UT systemwide fundraising campaign.

“Women’s athletics is close to my heart.”

Sherri Parker Lee’s name will forever be identified with UT Knoxville softball when the new stadium is dedicated in her honor.

Asked what inspired her to make a leadership gift, Lee grins and replies, “Joan needed a softball field!” Joan Cronan, UT Knoxville’s women’s athletics director, has been a friend since the 1960s, when she coached Lee’s sister-in-law during the early days of Lady Vols basketball.

But Lee, a Knoxvillian, has serious reasons for her gift as well. “Girls need opportunities. UT athletics has recruited the best players, and they’ve got to have good facilities,” she says. “These players are fine quality women–the leaders of tomorrow. UT women’s athletics is head and shoulders above the competition.”

Lee Stadium is under construction near UT Knoxville’s Regal Soccer Stadium off of Neyland Drive. Lee Stadium will have 1,500 seats, private boxes, a “jumbotron” scoreboard, and three locker rooms.

Lee is a graduate of Texas Christian University and did graduate work at UT Knoxville. Her late husband, Baxter Lee, was a UT graduate and a staunch supporter of UT athletics. “Giving back is the most gratifying thing you can do,” Lee says. “I’m just glad I was able to do it.”

“Pat and her crew have my heart.”

That would be Pat Summitt and the national champion Lady Vols who make Robbie Nutt so proud she could pop. Nutt, a Knoxvillian who’s originally from Ooltewah, Tennessee, has given $1 million for the new basketball practice facility. In recognition of her generosity, the Lady Vols locker room will be named for her.

Nutt didn’t attend UT, but both of her children–Robert Nutt and Rhonda Goble–are UT Knoxville engineering grads. Robbie Nutt’s first involvement with the university was being a football fan. But when she started going to Lady Vol basketball games with friends Bobby and June Fischer, she found her passion.

For years she attended games as the guest of friends and didn’t own season tickets. That situation has been set aright–she’ll have her own box when the refurbished Thompson-Boling Arena opens this fall.

Nutt, who also has endowed a basketball scholarship, is unequivocal in her praise of Summitt and the Lady Vols. “They are so deserving,” she says. “Pat only brings in the best of the best. She runs an excellent program. Everything she does is first class. I know my money will be well spent and appreciated.”

When asked how she feels about having her name above the locker room door, she answers quickly, “Proud. I’ll be proud for my grandchildren to see it (she has seven) and proud to be part of the program.”