Spence Wilson: A Man for All Seasons

By Martha Hunter Shephard ′66
Photography by Justin Fox Burks


President Troutt presents Spence Wilson with a framed cover of Rhodes magazine

Spence Wilson, who has served as a Rhodes trustee for 38 years and chairman for the past nine, will step down as chairman in July. At the April Board of Trustees meeting, presidents and board members, past and present, along with special guests gathered for a reception in his honor in Hardie Auditorium. The following remarks are highlights of the evening and his long, remarkable relationship with Rhodes.

Carrie Tennant ’10
Spanish Major
Kemmons Wilson Service Scholar

“Whether they realize it or not, Spence and Becky have had a profound impact on the past three years of my life.

“When I visited Rhodes during my senior year of high school in Boston, I fell in love with the campus and the community immediately, but I knew that without significant financial aid, attending Rhodes would never be possible for me. Thankfully, I received a very generous scholarship from the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation, and here I am today—a Kemmons Wilson Service Scholar.

“When I came to Memphis as a student, I did not know a single soul in the city. But the Wilson family made me feel welcome from the beginning, and after meeting them I felt immediately encouraged by the knowledge that they shared my passion for serving my community. I feel so lucky to be able to call such an amazing group of people my friends, and I think it is a testament to Spence and Becky’s good character that their children are just as kind and gracious as they are.

“As I reflect on my time at Rhodes and all the lessons I have learned both in and outside of the classroom, from building houses in Mexico to running a soup kitchen, I cannot imagine having spent the past three years anywhere else.

“These are memories that will stay with me forever. But the greatest of these lessons is one that Spence himself had a hand in teaching me, the lesson of perseverance. Spence is a family man, a philanthropist and a successful businessman, and he has shown me that there is no limit to what a group of determined individuals can accomplish. I am continually inspired by Spence and one day I hope that I will be able to inspire others to do good, just as Spence and the Wilson family have inspired me.”

Art Rollins ’81
First Vice President
Private Client Group
Merrill Lynch, Atlanta
Rhodes College Trustee

“It is certainly my honor and privilege to have served with Spence on the Rhodes College Board of Trustees these past 11 years. As an alumnus, a current board member and the parent of an incoming student, I thank him for his dedication.

“Sharon Drechslen may have characterized him best as she wrote in the May 2007 issue of Resort Trades: ‘Spence possesses a unique combination of dedication and real-life experience in producing successful projects that has helped him develop his character to be one that is friendly and approachable, while at the same time, wise and insightful .... [He is] gracious, loyal, spiritual, impassioned and a leader by example.’”

S. Herbert Rhea
President, Rhea Financial Corporation, Memphis
Rhodes College Trustee Emeritus

“Those of you in the Rhodes community are aware of the many things in which Spence has been involved at Rhodes: chairman of the board, Finance Committee chairman, etc., all handled in a splendid manner.

“What you may not know are the things that I have seen since 1972, when we first met. Spence is a superb pilot. He runs, with his brothers, Kem and Bob, a highly complicated group of business organizations that operate nationally. He is well-traveled and has served on the boards of several businesses.

“When you think about Spence you also have to think about Becky, his wife of 40 years. They have raised a great family, and during that time have together been primary supporters of two very successful nonprofits in Memphis, Youth Villages and Bridge Builders (now BRIDGES), which Becky helped to found. Becky is an attorney, photographer and author. She has served on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust and was its first female vice chairman.

“They are two outstanding people. It has been a privilege to know them.”

Michael Drompp
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty

“Spence Wilson has certainly been one of the college’s greatest friends. In particular, he has continually sought out the very best ways to support faculty and the academic program at Rhodes.

“One example is the Spence Wilson fund for international faculty travel. Although the college regularly provides support for faculty to travel for purposes of presenting their scholarly work at conferences or for engaging in research, the Spence Wilson fund was created to provide additional support for faculty whose needs take them beyond the borders of this country. The competitive Spence Wilson international travel grants, funded by the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation in Spence’s honor, have proved to be enormously popular and have allowed many faculty members to further their scholarly development in ways that might not otherwise have been possible. Mr. Wilson’s generosity in establishing and sustaining these grants has had a direct impact on many members of the Rhodes faculty.

“Another way in which Mr. Wilson has generously supported the academic program has been in the endowment of the new Spence Wilson Distinguished Chair in Humanities. As Rhodes seeks to find an outstanding scholar who will contribute in multiple ways to the college and its intellectual climate, I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to discuss with him his thoughts about this particular faculty position. Through our conversations I have seen even more fully his keen interest in the ‘big questions’ of life and his passion for intellectual engagement. More to the point, I have seen how his thinking about this endowed chair truly embodies the very essence of a liberal arts education.

“He has truly been a ‘game-changing’ partner for the Rhodes community.”

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