Gifts: Long-Term Investments
By Kendall Curlee
“Supporting an in-state public university and keeping our kids in Arkansas illuminates the hopes for our future and buoys up the economic health of our state.”
Lee Bodenhamer visits with Bodenhamer Fellows at the annual fall reception.
Photo: NWA Media.
In 1998 Lee Bodenhamer launched the Bodenhamer Fellowship, which awards generous support – currently, $72,000 over four years’ time – to Arkansas’ top students. Now, 20 years later, that investment in more than 140 students has matured: alumni Bodenhamer fellows include doctors, lawyers and teachers; an architect and a photo journalist; software developers and a cybersecurity specialist; physicists and policy analysts; and a biomedical researcher who is shedding light on how cancers spread throughout the body.
Those alumni will gather in early November to celebrate the fellowship, enduring friendships, and to thank Lee and Beverly Bodenhamer and their children Ann, John, Jim and Bob Bodenhamer. This upcoming reunion, informally known as the “The Bodie Bash,” will offer opportunities to visit Crystal Bridges, connect with former professors, and meet and network with current fellows. “We look forward to welcoming these stellar alumni back to campus,” said Honors College Dean Lynda Coon. “And we very much welcome the opportunity to thank the Bodenhamer family for funding college educations for our top students over the past 20 years, and for their steadfast support of the Honors College.”
Lee Bodenhamer would have benefited from the philanthropy he now provides. His father, O.L. Bodenhamer, attained prominence as national commander of the American Legion, an important presence in every major community in the U.S. at the time, and was encouraged to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He passed away before his son’s birth in 1934 in El Dorado, Arkansas. Lee Bodenhamer was raised by his mother, Irene Richardson Bodenhamer, who never remarried and dedicated her life to her family. She valued education and despite limited means, ensured that her family made a yearly educational trip to museums and historical sites across the U.S. Irene Bodenhamer also promoted the idea of giving back, encouraging her children to save coins for the collection plate at church. She practiced what she preached: A tax return that her son helped her prepare in the 1950s listed donations to multiple organizations, ranging from $1 to $253 for the First Baptist Church in El Dorado.
Lee Bodenhamer recalled that around age four or five, people began to say, “‘Oh, you’re going to be just like your Daddy.’” It troubled him, a somewhat shy child, to be compared to someone so admired, so Bodenhamer decided that “I couldn’t be like my Daddy – I was going to be something different.” The stock market sparked his interest at age 14, and a family friend met with him regularly to share what he knew about investment.
At age 18, Bodenhamer enrolled at the University of Arkansas’ College of Business Administration. His mother had set aside $4,000 from his father’s estate for his education, but he resolved to save that for graduate school. “I worked my way through school,” he recalled, “waiting tables and washing dishes after meals. I did that three days a week.” Bodenhamer did make time for fun and service – he pledged Sigma Chi and served as treasurer for his fraternity and for the Associated Students, now the Associated Student Government.
After earning his B.S.B.A. and M.B.A. at the U of A, Bodenhamer became an investment analyst for finance professor Harold Dulan, who had founded the Participating Annuity Life Insurance Company. Bodenhamer later earned his doctorate of business administration and taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business. During a summer break in 1968 he started his own firm, First Variable Life Insurance Company, which was the first life insurance company in the U.S. to offer policies that included an investment component. First Variable ranked consistently high in investment returns, thanks to Bodenhamer’s penchant for thinking, and investing, for the long term. When he sold the company in 1985, it numbered 75 employees, over 2,500 agents, and $331 million in total assets. Bodenhamer continued to work at a second investment company he started, Meridian Management Company, until he retired in 2001.
Perhaps remembering those late nights washing dishes, Bodenhamer had decided that a scholarship would be a good way to give back to the University of Arkansas. When John White took the helm as chancellor of the university, he asked Bodenhamer if he could fund three scholarships a year. “And I said, ‘well, I could do that,’” Bodenhamer recalled. “Then John came back after touring the state and recruiting some really good people, and he had seven.” Bodenhamer funded four fellowships that first year, and White found funds for the extra three, but asked if Bodenhamer could fund seven the next year. “I did, and that’s how we started,” Bodenhamer said.
The impact of Bodenhamer’s gift reached far beyond his student fellows. “The success of the Bodenhamer Fellowship Program provided the evidence we needed to show the Walton family what we could do if we had more private funding,” John White noted in an email. In effect, the Bodenhamer Fellowship helped pave the way for the historic $300 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation – part of which was used to establish the Honors College.
Bodenhamer’s goal, ultimately, was to fight the brain drain of Arkansas’ best and brightest. The Bodenhamers have generously given their time, service and resources to numerous programs across campus and to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, but the fellowship program is “my greatest and first priority,” Bodenhamer said in a 2017 Inviting Arkansas profile.
“It was so powerful to be able to really concentrate, and for we Bodenhamer fellows, not to have a day job.”
“It was so powerful to be able to really concentrate, and for we Bodenhamer fellows, not to have a day job,” said Sarah Mesko (B.M., flute and vocal performance, summa cum laude, ’08), an opera singer who made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016. “We could devote all of our time, and all of our energy, into our studies. It was the most amazing gift, to be able to graduate with a degree in something I love, and to be able to start fresh, and not in a hole of student debt and loans.”
The Bodenhamer Fellowship is one of the most prestigious offered at the University. Students must have a 3.8 high school GPA and a 32 ACT score just to apply, and those who make the cut have shown promise as leaders – whether it’s organizing a new club at school, leading a service project in their community, pursuing original research, or all of the above.
The fellowship is special in other ways. Early on, Bodenhamer decided to fund a week-long summer trip to Washington, D.C., for incoming freshman fellows, with the idea that it would be a bonding experience. It worked. Bodenhamer fellows typically enjoy close ties with their cohort and with alumni fellows, as well. The summer trip continues today, currently chaperoned by professors Bret and Stephanie Schulte and taking place in the nation’s business capital, New York City. Thanks to that summer trip, and fall and spring receptions where all current fellows, some alumni fellows, and assorted parents meet to visit with Lee and Beverly Bodenhamer and his children, the group has grown into an informal family.
“I love getting the Bodenhamer report every year, and seeing how accomplished the Bodie fellows are, and the ways that this fellowship has been a springboard for them,” said daughter Ann Rosso, who chairs the Honors College Campaign Committee. “I hope that they will consider paying it forward, by supporting U of A students in the future.”
A final word on Bodenhamer traditions: The annual gatherings have been faithfully photographed by Russell Cothren since 2006, and his group photos provide treasured mementos of very promising scholars through the years.
“If all 144 of our current and former fellows show up, then Russell’s going to need a really special lens to get this group shot,” said Rosso with a laugh, referring to the photograph that will document this fall’s reunion.
Lee Bodenhamer chats with fellows Nick Kordsmeier and Rachael Pellegrino.
Photo: NWA Media.
Group photo of freshmen fellows with trip chaperones Brett and Stephanie Schulte, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz and wife Sandy, and the Bodenhamers.
Photo: Russell Cothren
Are you a former Bodenhamer fellow needing more information about the Bodie Bash? Contact Reynelda Augustine Robinson at email@example.com. Or perhaps you would like to start your own tradition by creating a fellowship that helps bright students reach their potential. Contact John Treat at firstname.lastname@example.org to explore the options.