Shaping the Future

Nunnelly bequest opens the door to college for rural Tennessee students

Story by Bud Grimes | Photos by Steve Mantilla

Bill Nunnelly (’70) possesses many talents that served him well as a successful businessman and entrepreneur, but perhaps his most important trait is his refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Thanks to Bill and his wife, Rosann, future generations of students can complete their college education without concern for the cost. A $22 million gift from the couple to the university was announced by UT Interim President Randy Boyd and UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver during the June 21 meeting of the UT Board of Trustees in Knoxville. The gift is the largest ever made to UT Martin and will provide scholarships to UT Martin students from rural areas.

Rosann and Bill Nunnelly at their home in Nashville.

“We appreciate the Nunnelly family opening doors for students from rural counties to attend UT Martin,” Boyd said. “They are helping to change not only the lives of students, but also of families, communities and the state. The impact of their gift will reverberate through generations of Tennesseans.”

“Bill and Rosann Nunnelly have honored UT Martin with a transformational gift that will help many future generations of students attend the university,” Carver said. “Bill’s UT Martin experience shaped who he is as a person and successful entrepreneur, and we’re grateful that he and his wife have chosen to give back in this generous way.”

The Nunnellys were honored with the 2019 Chancellor’s Award for University Service and with the dedication of the Nunnelly Family Welcome Center in the Boling University Center during homecoming weekend 2019.

Bill received a Bachelor of Science in education from UT Martin and later earned a Master of Education from Boston University. The scholarship awards resulting from the couple’s gift will give preference to students from Hickman County, where he was raised on a cattle and feed-grain farm in the community that bears his family name.

Although the gift is a bequest, the benefits began when four Hickman County students received scholarships to begin UT Martin classes this past fall semester. Qualified students from Dickson, Giles, Humphreys, Lawrence, Lewis and Maury counties will also be eligible to receive future scholarships. More than 90 scholarships could be awarded annually once the full bequest is realized. Even though the gift has been in the couple’s will for many years, the decision to offer a limited number of scholarships upfront appealed to the Nashville couple.

Pictured (l-r) are Jacob Bybee of Centerville; Rosann Nunnelly; Cierra Russell, of Duck River; and Bill Nunnelly. Bybee and Russell are two of the first four Nunnelly Scholars. Not pictured are Elias Istre, of Centerville, and Emmalee Mathews, of Lyles.

“I’ve got to give credit to Chancellor Carver. He suggested doing that (offering scholarships starting this fall),” Bill said. “But what’s so great about it is that we get to watch these scholarships materialize right before our eyes and … watch these young adults grow up to be something in the business world.” Rosann added, “Oh, and we read the article from Hickman County (The Hickman County Times, July 1 edition) that said a little bit about each of them (the first scholarship recipients), and that was really nice to see.”

Bill was influenced by his rural upbringing and the discipline of the military. His grandfather and father served in World War I and II respectively, and he attended his first three years of high school at Columbia Military Academy in nearby Maury County before completing his senior year in Hickman County. UT Martin was an early college choice because his mother and father attended UT Junior College, predecessor to the university. So, it followed that the ROTC program, which he entered in high school, later became an important part of his UT Martin experience.

Also influential was his involvement in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. “I think that’s the place (ATO) where I also began becoming a man,” he said. “I had a great group of brothers that were just truly good people.” Among the fraternity brothers who had the biggest impact on his life were Covington attorney Houston Gordon (’68) and Memphis real estate executive Jim Black (‘69).

Bill speaks durning a visit to the UT Martin campus.

Bill was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army upon graduation from UT Martin. He completed his military service, but instead of returning to the family farm, he pursued various business interests through the years and became a successful entrepreneur. He is now semi-retired. Among his successes was a partnership that created the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company in the early 1980s. The company manufactured a successful additive-free cigarette called American Spirit. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company bought the company in 2002, and the American Spirit brand continues today.

Bill’s success was neither easy nor overnight, and Rosann summarizes his success in one sentence: “He doesn’t give up on anything.” Bill agreed. “I stay at it. If I don’t win this deal, I go to the next one, and we move on,” he said. “But one thing I will say about an entrepreneur – you got to be lucky, and I’ve had good luck.”

Bill remembers his roots, and now his good fortune will help Nunnelly family scholarship recipients find their own success in life and assure that a college education is within reach for future generations of students who call rural Tennessee home.

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