When Neil Griffin returned home to Jonesboro following a stint in the Navy during World War II, he decided to get a high school diploma. His mother never made it beyond eighth grade, and his father stopped in the fourth grade. His parents stressed the importance of education to him.
The superintendent at Nettleton High School encouraged Griffin to take a college entrance exam and join the freshman class at Arkansas State University. Griffin took the exam, and by 1948 he was the first person in his family to graduate with a college degree.
The now 91-year-old donated $10 million to the ASU College of Business on Tuesday – the largest single academic gift the school has ever received, ASU Jonesboro Chancellor Kelly Damphousse told Talk Business & Politics. When Griffin passes, a portion of his estate will be bequeathed to ASU, but how much that gift will end up being is undetermined.
“I really wish my mom and dad could be here,” Griffin said at the announcement as tears welled in his eyes.
ASU’s college of business will be renamed the Neil Griffin College of Business. Three chairs or professorships will be established with the donation: the H.B. Foster Bowdon Chair of Accounting; the Neil Griffin Dean of Business; and the Neil Griffin Professor of Entrepreneurship. The endowment will create new student scholarships, a student investment fund to be used by students in wealth management classes, an excellence fund that will provide discretionary money to be used by the dean, and the Gena Griffin International Travel Fund, a tribute to his wife.
Bowdon has a special place in Griffin’s heart, he said. He’d never taken an accounting class when he arrived on the ASU campus, and Bowdon was instrumental is shaping his life and career, he said. It’s been almost 70 years since he spoke to his former instructor, but Griffin said he will never forget the impact the man had on his life. Bowdon has passed away, but his son, Dudley Bowdon, said the family was honored by the tribute.
“My father told stories of how these men were focused and serious,” Bowdon said. “That Mr. Griffin remembers my dad and that more than 50 years later he wanted to remember him with this endowed chair is one of the most touching things our family can imagine.”
Griffin grew up on a farm in Needham, a community in rural Craighead County near Jonesboro. His parents didn’t have a lot of schooling, but the importance of reading was emphasized in the home with 10 children. His parents drove him to Nettleton each day because they believed it was a better school, he said. His first encounter with ASU came when he was in high school and decided participate in the school scholastic competition. He competed in the math category and won a gold medal.
Before his 17th birthday, he and a friend snuck away to join the Navy. He spent 31 months in the service fighting in the Pacific Ocean. Griffin returned and earned his college degree. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Texas after he graduated ASU.
He then began a long career in accounting and banking. Later in his career he became and investment banker. He told Talk Business & Politics he made a lot of his money from buying, building, and then selling businesses, mostly banks. During his career he served as the CEO of two publicly traded companies, according to ASU. The semi-retired Griffin is engaged in philanthropy and angel investing in emerging industries.
“Education is number one. Education changes your life. … There is no way to change your life without education,” he said.
Griffin gave the administrators, faculty, and students that gathered for the announcement a piece of advice. He told the students the business world, like many other sectors is undergoing rapid change. Artificial intelligence, automation, and other emerging technological changes are transforming the business world. He said he hopes administrators inside the college of business are able to quickly identify the changes and develop a curriculum that prepares students for whatever work environment they will face in the future.
Griffin decided about five years ago to leave the college $5 million, but in recent years he put thought into increasing his gift, he said. He now resides in Kerrville, Texas, a retirement community about 60 miles from San Antonio. There is one change at ASU that Griffin has had some trouble with, but has finally been able to do it.
“In my day we used to say ‘Go Indians!’ but I’ve come around to saying ‘Go Red Wolves!” he said to laughs and cheers.