Over the past couple of years, we’ve had some very generous benefactors make very generous gifts to our Alabama alma maters.
One such philanthropist is Alabama businessman Jim Kennemer. Thanks to his $2 million gift from Kennemer, the University of Alabama has funded his James C. Kennemer Center for Innovation and Social Impact.
Jim and I were students together at the University of Alabama in the 1970s, where we became friends and remain friends today. Many of his closest friends call him “Robo,” a nickname he picked up when he took his fraternity oath in college. why? Because he was very good and efficient at washing older active members’ cars.
I have very vivid memories of Jim’s involvement in an unprecedented secret university effort called “The Computer.” As students, most of us had a vague idea that these strange new machines existed, but that was about all we knew.
Jim disappears and appears at breakfast. When asked about these nighttime activities, he curiously replied that he was in a computer center doing “programming.” Now, please understand that this was in the early 1970s and these computers were very new. Little did we know how these machines would eventually impact our daily lives.
Jim Kennemer is from Tuscumbia. His wife, Nancy Pettus, is from Birmingham. They met in college and bonded. They have been married for 50 years, building an empire together and giving back to his alma mater, the University of Alabama.
The University of Alabama recently hosted a reception to announce the donation and naming of the Kennemer Center. The center will be located within the UA Honors College.
After leaving UA with his bachelor’s and MBA degrees, Jim settled in the back of a warehouse in Birmingham and designed the first fully programmable payment processing workstation. The first customer was one of the country’s largest banks. Within a few years, the system was installed at major banks, utilities, and other large processors across the United States. At one point, approximately 12% of the U.S. GDP was flowing through these systems that Jim designed.
When that company was acquired, Jim and his partners pursued opportunities in the UK and eventually grew the company to be listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Returning to Alabama, Jim continued a string of successful companies. After he was acquired by one of these companies, Jim came across innovative technology developed by NASA for early detection of eye problems in children. Thus, Vision Research Co., Ltd. was established.
The study of vision became Jim’s real hobby. Jim originally had entrepreneurial interests and intentions for the company. But after seeing the lives of thousands of children vastly improved by correcting his vision problems, he fell in love with his project for life. Hundreds of thousands of children are tested each year, and almost 1 million children have been helped over the years.
Jim Kennemer grew up about a mile away from Helen Keller’s birthplace. I always thought she was the impetus for Jim Kennemer’s Vision Research Center.
Recently, Crown Health founder and CEO Billy Jones and his wife Frances donated $2 million to his alma mater, Troy University. Troy University plans to use the donation toward new buildings on the Troy campus. The building will be named after Billy Jones of Monroeville. It will be a research center in the field of polymers and polymer recycling. The building, named in Jones’ honor, will also appropriately be primarily a health sciences building.
Troy University President Dr. Jack Hawkins was known for his fundraising skills during his 35-year tenure as Troy University’s president. He gave an elegant presentation in a speech honoring Jones at the ceremony that bestowed Jones’ name on the building. He said simply: “Billy Jones is a cornerstone of the quality of health care in Alabama.
“As President and CEO of Crown Health Systems, he is an Alabama legend and a product of Troy. With 18 nursing homes and 2,000 employees, he is a leader in the care of thousands of people. He has made a remarkable difference in the quality of care. It is fitting that his name is reflected in a building dedicated to the development and education of health professionals. He has been a great supporter of this university and we I am very proud of my relationship with him.”
The adage still holds true: Alabama is one big front porch. Dr. Jack Hawkins and Billy Jones grew up together in Mobile. They have known each other since they attended Murphy High School together in Mobile.
see you next week.
Steve Flowers’ weekly column appears in more than 60 Alabama newspapers. Steve served in the state legislature for 16 years.Steve can be reached at www.steveflowers.us.