Profiles in Giving: Spence and Becky Webb Wilson


Becky and Spence Wilson with President Troutt (left) at their induction into the Benefactors′ Circle, fall 2007

Memphis businessman Spence Wilson is a longtime member and chair of the Rhodes Board of Trustees. He is also chair of the national Campaign for Rhodes. It may surprise some people that he and his wife Becky are graduates of Vanderbilt University, where he majored in economics and business, and she majored in Spanish, minored in French and studied Russian and Portuguese.

Spence began his career in 1969 as assistant to his father Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inns. Since that time, Spence’s primary focus has been in the areas of real estate development and private equity investments. As president of Memphis-based Kemmons Wilson Inc., he oversees the firm’s diverse business interests.

Spence first joined the Rhodes Board of Trustees in 1971, and has served as chair for the last eight years. Becky, an attorney who served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee for several years, also founded Bridge Builders, a youth leadership program. She has served as president of the Vanderbilt Alumni Association and vice chair of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, of which she is currently a member. In addition, the couple support the Spence and Rebecca Webb Wilson Fellowship in the Humanities at Vanderbilt.

So how did the Rhodes Lynx attract two devoted Commodores?

As a Rhodes trustee for a total of 37 years (with only a little time off between terms), Spence says, “Becky and I both read widely. During my last year at Vanderbilt, I became very interested in history and the humanities, and that’s been the focus of most of my reading since then. You have to read about business to be in business, but reading in these other areas is where I get most of my pleasure.

“From the beginning I’ve always loved the Search course at Rhodes,” he says. “It’s a broad survey of faith, religion, philosophy and history. That just resonated with me. I thought, ‘This is powerful and worth being involved in and supporting.’ With courses like Search, as with many areas of life, the more you learn about something, the more you appreciate it, and the more excited you get. Finally it kind of turns into passion.”

The Search course sparked their interest in Rhodes, but Memphis is what lights their fire.

“Spence and I both love Memphis so much. We both feel very strongly about improving life here as much as possible,” says Becky. “Rhodes is such a jewel. It’s a vital college that enlivens and refreshes this community and brings people to Memphis who often decide to stay here.”

At Rhodes, as in the community, the Wilsons have a history of finding needs and providing resources to fill them. In addition to being longtime members of the Charles E. Diehl Society, they have created the Spence L. Wilson Service Scholarship Program and the Spence Wilson Faculty International Travel Fund. With their support, the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation established a service scholarship as well. Currently, a faculty search committee is at work looking to fill the Spence L. Wilson Distinguished Chair in Humanities.

Spence is clearly enthusiastic about the chair: “When I was thinking about what to do in the way of giving, I asked the college, ‘What are your real needs here that might intersect with my interests?’ We decided on the chair in humanities that will help the Search course and at the same time offer interdisciplinary and community-oriented initiatives.”

The idea for the faculty travel fund came to him at a board meeting a few years ago.

“I was really intrigued when some professors who had traveled to Italy spoke about how defining it was to them to have seen so many of the things they had read, thought and written about. That inspired me to figure out a way to provide some monies each year so that others could have similar experiences.”

Spence, a pilot, also greatly enjoys providing occasional side trips, like the two times he has taken physics students up in his plane to experience 0 gravity before they actually flew to perform experiments aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder.”

It’s the joy of learning and giving that inspires the Wilsons’ generosity.

“We’ve been very blessed, but blessings without gratitude are dead ends. We derive great satisfaction from passing them on,” says Becky.

“We are blessed,” Spence agrees. “Rhodes has had three capital campaigns since I’ve been on the board. And we feel really fortunate at this time in our lives that we’re able to do something of significance at Rhodes and Vanderbilt and are alive to see some of the fruits of our giving.”

Your Annual Fund Dollars—A Living Endowment

The Annual Fund lies at the heart of the college and is vital to the Campaign for Rhodes. Serving as the college’s living endowment, it provides the necessary resources to maintain the quality of excellence our students, parents and alumni expect from Rhodes. Alumni, parents, trustees, faculty, staff, corporations, foundations and friends individually contribute between $5 and $100,000 each year to the Annual Fund.

These gifts provide nearly $3 million annually to support all aspects of the college,  including student scholarships and faculty support. Rhodes depends heavily on Annual Fund support; every gift, no matter the size, has a significant impact. It would take $60 million in new endowment dollars to provide the same support the Annual Fund provides to Rhodes each year.

Fortunately, Rhodes benefits from a long history of Annual Fund support from our constituents. Since the beginning of the Campaign for Rhodes, the college has received $ 17.5 million in gifts to the Annual Fund—more than 11 percent of the current Campaign for Rhodes total.

The success of the Rhodes Annual Fund is a result of consistent, consecutive giving. In fact, Rhodes alumni participation (the percent of alumni who make gifts to the college) remains one of the highest in the country. Our alumni participation rate for the duration of the campaign is 71 percent, which means 8,722 alumni have made a gift at some point during the campaign.

Where We Are

(through May 15, 2008)

Cash Commitment   $126,875,000
Deferred Commitments $26,900,000
Campaign Total  $153,775,000

The Breakdown

Scholarships/ Fellowships $54,800,000
Academic  & Faculty Support  $77,500,000

Update: The Campaign for Rhodes

Now in full swing, the Campaign for Rhodes aims to raise $250 million to provide funds to help attract—and retain—the very best faculty, students and staff.
For more on the exciting aspects of the campaign, please visit “Giving to Rhodes” on the college Web site,, or contact the Development Office at 901-843-3850 to learn how you can support these goals.

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