By Chandra Harris-McCray
“It’s only reasonable to give back to the place that gave you so much.”
This is how Bill Blankenship (Martin ’55) describes his loyalties to UT Martin. Passionate about what UT Martin means to West Tennessee, Blankenship and his wife, Roberta, also a 1955 graduate, have given several six-figure unrestricted gifts to their alma mater, as well as a $2-million bequest for the Campaign for Tennessee.
Their gifts have established the Blankenship Undergraduate Research Endowment in the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences at UT Martin. The endowment provides faculty incentives and student stipends that offer real-world learning experiences in a tightly knit mentoring environment. The Blankenships’ continued generosity also made it possible for state-of-the-art equipment to be purchased for the Chemistry Department.
Last spring the couple hosted a reception in their home in Sandestin, Florida. They invited many UT Martin alumni and friends to meet Chancellor Tom Rakes of UT Martin and his wife, Glenda, while getting acquainted with other UT alumni in the Florida Panhandle.
During the alumni reception, the couple reminisced about Roberta Blankenship’s years as a campus beauty and their days of playing tennis at UT Martin. A portion of their annual gifts has been earmarked for the UTM tennis team and the James C. Henson Tennis Endowment, as well as the UT Annual Giving Program. The generosity of a sponsor in high school made it possible for Bill Blankenship, who grew up in Covington, Tennessee, to attend UT Martin and graduate with a degree in agriculture.
“UT Martin offered an environment of caring professors and staff. They cared enough to help me develop academically and professionally,” said Bill Blankenship. UT Martin was a building block of his naval career, and later of his business career with Buckeye, a division of Procter & Gamble. P & G sold its cellulose business in the early 1990s to an investment group that formed Buckeye Technologies, where Bill was vice-president of cotton manufacturing.
In 2005, nearly five decades after they graduated, the Blankenships visited UT Martin for their Golden Grad Reunion. Roberta Blankenship says she felt the old familiar spirit. “Yes, the bricks and mortar have changed, but the people—the true heart of UT Martin—are still the same caring and loving people I remembered from my days there.”
Bill Blankenship became a member of the UT Martin Development Committee and currently serves on the Campaign for Tennessee’s steering committee and the UT Development Council. Several of the couple’s nieces and nephews have attended UT Martin, including the most recent Blankenship family UTM alumnus, Joel Howard, who graduated in December 2005.
“Someone thought enough of us to put us on the path to UT Martin, and now we want to be the ones thinking of someone else,” Bill Blankenship says.
“It would be hard to develop engineers, scientists, and doctors without the caliber of higher education UT provides. I want to be at the forefront of giving back, especially if it means the leaders of tomorrow will gain all that they can while at UT Martin and be prepared to go out into the world and be positive forces of change.”