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Steve Flowers: University philathropists

In the past two to three years we have had some very generous benefactors make some very magnanimous contributions to their university alma maters in Alabama.

One of those philanthropist is Alabama businessman Jim Kennemer. Thanks to a $2 million gift from Kennemer, the University of Alabama funded the James C. Kennemer Center for Innovation and Social Impact.

Jim and I were in school together at the University of Alabama in the 1970s, where we became friends and we have remained friends. Many of his close friends call him “Robo,” a nickname he picked up while a fraternity pledge at the University. Why? Because he was so proficient and efficient at washing the older active members cars.

I remember, quite vividly, that Jim was involved in an unheard of secret university endeavor called “computers.” As students, most of us vaguely knew that these strange new machines existed, but that is about all we knew.

Jim would disappear and show up for breakfast. When asked about these nocturnal activities, he would curiously respond that he had been at the computer center where he had been “programming.” Now, understand that this was in the early 1970s and these computers were very new. Little did we know what an impact these machines would ultimately have in our daily lives.

Jim Kennemer is from Tuscumbia. His wife Nancy Pettus is from Birmingham. They met and bonded at the University. They have been married 50 years and have built an empire together and have given back to their alma mater, the University of Alabama.

The University of Alabama recently hosted a reception to announce the gift and the naming of the Kennemer Center. The Center will be housed within the UA Honors College.

After leaving UA with a BS and MBA degrees, Jim settled into the back of a warehouse in Birmingham and designed the first fully programmable payment processing workstations.  The first customer was the largest bank in the country. Within a few years, systems were installed at major banks, utilities and other large processors throughout the United States. At one point roughly 12% of the U.S. GDP flowed through these systems that Jim designed.

When that company was acquired, Jim and a partner pursued an opportunity in England that ultimately grew into a company he took public on the London Stock Exchange.

Back in Alabama, Jim continued with a series of successful companies. After one of these companies had been acquired, Jim came across a revolutionary NASA developed technology for early detection of eye problems in children. Thus, Vision Research Corporation was launched.

Vision research became Jim’s real love. Jim originally had an entrepreneur’s interest and intent with the company. However, after seeing thousands of children’s lives made so much better after correction of their vision problems, he was hooked for life with his project. Hundreds of thousands of kids are screened each year and over the years, almost one million children have been helped.

Jim Kennemer grew up about a mile from Helen Keller’s birthplace. I have always thought that she was an impetus toward Jim Kennemer’s Vision Research Center.

Recently, Crowne Health founder and CEO, Billy Jones, and his wife Frances, gave $2 million to Troy University, his alma mater. Troy University will use the gift for a new building on the Troy campus. The building will be named in honor of Billy Jones of Monroeville. It will be a center for research in the area of polymers and polymer recycling. The building named in Jones’s honor will also primarily and appropriately be a Health Science building.

Dr. Jack Hawkins, Chancellor of Troy University, has been known for his prowess at fundraising during his 35 year reign as Chancellor of Troy University. He made an elegant presentation in his remarks honoring Jones at the ceremony bestowing the Jones name upon the building. He said succinctly, “Billy Jones is a cornerstone in the quality of healthcare in Alabama.

“As President and CEO of Crowne Health Systems, he has been a legend in Alabama, and he is a Troy product. With 18 nursing homes and 2000 employees, he has made a remarkable difference in the quality of care given to many thousands of people. It is appropriate that his name will be reflected on a building that is dedicated to the development and education of healthcare workers. He has been a great supporter of this university and we are very proud of the relationship we share with him.”

The saying that Alabama is one big front porch continues. Dr. Jack Hawkins and Billy Jones grew up together in Mobile. They have known each other since their days together at Murphy High in Mobile.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers’ weekly column appears in more than 60 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state Legislature.  Steve may be reached at  www.steveflowers.us.

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