Leaders at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado were both overjoyed and astonished upon receiving the surprise announcement recently that a wealthy philanthropist—one with no apparent connections to the school—has provided the largest single charitable donation in the institution’s 20-year history.
Norris Cunningham Taylor Jr., who had been an accountant and attorney in Fort Smith before his death in October of last year, left nearly a quarter of a million dollars to SouthArk in his will. He has no known ties with the school or even with the area. It was just one of 40 such gifts, totaling more than $11 million, that Taylor bequeathed to institutions and organizations throughout Arkansas.
The donation will filter through the SouthArk Foundation. Its director, Cynthia Reyna, initially learned of the gift in early December but was not informed of the amount until later. Vice president Lisa Sagely of the Bank of Fayetteville called Reyna to disclose the $247,550 donation.
“I was incredulous, ecstatic and a little breathless (a little dramatic, but true),” Reyna said. “I was immediately very humbled and grateful that a person unknown to me and, from all accounts, unknown to our board leadership and college leaders, would have the faith in our college to give us a gift of any size, and particularly in the amount of almost a quarter million dollars. I was convinced that there was some connection that he had with us during his life, but the knowledge I have collected is that Mr. Taylor loved this state, its citizens and those agencies and organizations that make a strong impact on their communities. I have come to understand that this is a gift in the truest sense of the word.”
Taylor’s obituary indicated he died at age 84 and was “productive and prosperous.” He was raised in Trumann and was a graduate of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He had no children or spouse. A letter from Rick Watkins, the nephew of Taylor and his estate administrator, indicated that Taylor’s donation is “a token of the respect he had for your fine institution and its mission” and that it may be used in any way that the recipient sees fit. I suspect that unrestricted gifts from unfamiliar benefactors are somewhat rare but extraordinarily welcomed these days,” Watkins wrote.
SouthArk president Dr. Barbara Jones expressed appreciation, saying that the money will touch many lives in the future. “When learning of the bequest of Mr. Taylor, I was thrilled and excited but also humbled that he chose to leave SouthArk a planned gift in his will,” Jones said. “This generous gift leaves a legacy that will impact the college for years to come.”
Foundation Board President Terry Norman said that, while precisely why Taylor selected SouthArk might remain a mystery, it is an honor that he did. “Many other organizations or institutions could have been chosen by Mr. Taylor, but he saw fit to select SouthArk,” Norman said. “The funds from this donation will be used in the Foundation's ongoing mission to support the educational efforts of the college—certainly a worthy mission, and one that will benefit El Dorado and the surrounding area.”
The donation will support college initiatives and priorities, but decisions about exactly how the funds will be spent have not been made yet. “Use of the gift will be determined, with input by Dr. Jones, by the Gifts Committee and Executive Committee of the Foundation,” Reyna said.
It could be used to fulfill many different needs, Jones said. “It will help to bridge the gap in state funding, provide financial assistance to disadvantaged or talented students, maintain cutting-edge technology and support college programs and services,” Jones said. “Ultimately, the region will benefit by having a highly-trained and educated workforce and more engaged citizens.”
Reyna added that a donation like Taylor’s is called a “planned gift”—one that is written into a benefactor’s will. “Planned gifts are a new focus for us to seek from donors so that they can make a lasting impact on students, faculty and academic programs,” Reyna said.
SouthArk Board President Steve Cousins said that Taylor’s generosity is moving. "What an inspiring thing it is to give the gift of a quality educationto others,” he said. “At South Arkansas Community College we are grateful that we will have a chance to steward this investment in the future to help positively change people's lives."
The letter from Watkins said that Taylor did not seek “anonymity or publicity” in his giving. Reyna said that she takes this to mean that Taylor gave without thought to either. “Mr. Taylor was, by all accounts, a generous, thoughtful professional who planned his estate to benefit those who make the biggest life-affirming impact in their communities,” she said. “He was a staunch advocate of education. The information that I have received is that Mr. Taylor had strategically selected viable, deserving organizations in the state that do good works for and make an impact on their community’s well-being.” The official state-defined service area of SouthArk is Ashley, Chicot,Union and Bradley Counties. The college is noting its 20th anniversary this year with 20 different themed events.