A “true son of Letcher County” has donated the largest gift in the history of the University of Kentucky — $23 million to create one of the country’s leading Honors programs.
The gift, from UK alum and longtime donor Thomas W. Lewis and his wife Jan, will establish an Honors College at the University of Kentucky.
“This gift, by a remarkable person and leader so committed to his alma mater and to education, reflects our mission to place the success of students first in everything that we do,” UK President Eli Capilouto said while announcing the single largest gift in University’s history October 22. “Tom Lewis is investing in, and helping enhance, a vision we have to be the finest residential, public research university in America.
“This incredible gift will help us open the doors of UK even wider — not simply to students with outstanding academic achievement, but also those with different backgrounds, identities, perspectives and financial means, who will benefit enormously from the focused and excellent educational experience offered by an Honors College that will be among the finest in the country.”
“I have a strong belief in the value of education and helping young people become the best they can be,” said Lewis, whose parents were born and reared in Letcher County. “This gift is our way of helping University of Kentucky honors students reach their full potential as leaders who will create, shape and influence people, ideas and discoveries for this and generations yet to come.”
Lewis, a 1971 engineering graduate of UK, is a seventh generation Kentuckian, tracing his direct ancestry back to Squire Boone, the father of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.
“He is a true son of Letcher County,” said first cousin William Lewis Collins, who was a guest at last week’s announcement. “Tom Lewis’s father was T.G. Lewis, a career naval officer from Whitesburg; his mother Ruth Jones from Neon. Our grandfather William Henry Lewis was a lawyer in Whitesburg, and county judge at one time. His grandfather Buck Jones was an engineer for the L&N for many decades.
After UK, Tom Lewis attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he earned an MBA. He now lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where he entered the home building business after graduate school and over the next 18 years was employed by a series of large firms where he gained practical experience at all work levels. In 1991, he began his own business, T.W. Lewis Company, in Phoenix, which became one of the nation’s most successful home building enterprises, receiving numerous awards including America’s Best Builder, the National Housing Quality Silver and Gold Awards and America’s Best Design Center Award.
In the last five years, at the direction of Capilouto and the Board of Trustees, participation in the university’s Honors Program has nearly doubled, growing from 750 students to 1,400, part of an effort to enhance the undergraduate educational experience, while also improving retention and graduation rates.
“Four years ago, our Board of Trustees, along with President Capilouto, set forth an ambitious agenda to enhance the undergraduate educational experience as part of a focus on improving the education we provide to tomorrow’s leaders as well as accelerating our progress in retention and graduation of more students,” said Trustee Angela Edwards, who chairs the board’s Academic and Student Affairs Committee. “Today, we mark another important step, a milestone of progress … .”
Many aspects of the proposed college have been modeled on best practices at Honors Colleges across the country and extensive review of some of the leading programs at places such as the University of South Carolina and Arizona State University.
“Our institution is focused on students and serving Kentucky,” Capilouto said. “That vision and that mission are attracting dedicated donors and alums, who share that sense of service to the university and to the Commonwealth, as evidenced by the fact that this gift is focused on the success and future of our students.
The gift eclipses the $20 million donated by UK trustee “Wild” Bill Gatton in September 2014.
The college funded by Lewis will be in a residence hall to be built across from William T. Young Library, and the money will be used to hire a dean and eight to 10 faculty and staff, and to provide programming, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
Herald-Leader reporter Linda B. Blackford said Lewis made it clear that eastern Kentucky remains close to his heart, mentioning that all 16 of his greatgrandparents lived here.
“When I think about this honors college, I really think about honoring the history of our family in Kentucky,” Lewis said.
Will Collins, his brother, Sam Collins, and their wives Teresa and Marietta, all of Letcher County, were guests at the announcement.