By Bill Studenc
When businesswoman Judith “Judy” Y. Brinson died July 3, 2021, at age 77, the entrepreneur who split her time between the mountains of Western North Carolina and South Carolina’s Low Country left behind a legacy of philanthropy, a loving husband who shared her passion for helping others, three beloved golden retrievers and 325 children.
Technically, only three among those 325 are her biological children; the other 322 are Western Carolina University students who have been helped in their pursuit of higher education through scholarships established by Judy and her husband, Jack.
And the number of WCU students who are unofficial members of the Brinson family tree will grow even larger with the recent establishment of two new scholarships in her memory – the $500,000 Judy Brinson Annual Scholarship Fund created by Jack Brinson and the $25,000 Judy Brinson Endowed Scholarship Fund, made possible by family friends Greg and Mary Thompson, of Atlanta.
Those newly launched funds are in addition to more than $2 million in gifts and commitments from Judy and Jack Brinson since 2007, all toward a goal of providing scholarship assistance to students all across WCU’s campus, including Honors College students, Catamount student-athletes and students with severe financial need.
That’s quite a legacy for a woman known affectionately as “Juju,” a former nontraditional college student who, not subscribing to the cultural norms of her time, refused to choose between motherhood and a career outside the home and earned a degree in business while raising two young twin girls.
“Not only was Judy a philanthropic visionary, but she also served as a mentor to female leaders, including me,” said Jamie T. Raynor, WCU vice chancellor for advancement. “Her encouraging message was clear: you can indeed succeed at being a mother, professional, colleague and friend, and be personally fulfilled in serving others. It’s incredible how someone with no initial connection to WCU became one of the institution’s top supporters. The Brinson family is special. I’m not sure we’ll ever have another Judy Brinson at WCU.”
The daughter of Neil and Sue Young, Brinson studied as an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, planning to become a teacher before switching gears and enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to study business. Shortly after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in business from UNCG, she married Jack Brinson in August 1977.
Regarded by many as a trailblazer and role model for women working in the business world, she began her career as a financial analyst at a Greensboro fuel dispenser manufacturer. She quickly ascended the corporate ladder, becoming the first female senior vice president for First Union Bank, building a loan portfolio of more than $1 billion and going on to earn a graduate degree in banking at the University of Oklahoma.
Building upon Jack’s experience in the apparel industry as owner of P.L. Industries, the Brinsons in 1987 purchased Apparel Brands Inc., an international uniform-manufacturing company with operations in the U.S., Mexico and Nicaragua. Judy, who also was co-owner of the Highlands-based home builder Young Home Properties with her brother, William “Phil” Young, remained CEO of Apparel Brands until her death last July.
For all of her success in the business world, she was even more proud of her accomplishments as a mother to three daughters – Fonda Haight, Freda Philbeck and Karyn Brinson – and as a beloved grandmother and great-grandmother, bestowing a love of giving and service upon her children and her children’s children.
“Her energy to support the development and happiness of so many students at WCU, knowing from experience the depth of these contributions, was contagious,” said daughter Karyn Brinson. “She was devoted to the growth and well-being of others, whether it be educationally, spiritually or emotionally. Judy was a bright light, a force of positivity.”
As a parent, Judy Brinson taught by doing and led by example, said daughter Fonda Haight. “My Mom knew about true love – love that doesn’t ask for anything in return,” Haight said. “She taught us all by example to give. She shared what she had because she knew that in the sharing there was a gift, not only for the people who received it, but for herself as well. Her lessons have been well learned by her family and I hope we can continue her beautiful legacy.”
Judy Brinson’s genetic predisposition for philanthropy has found its way to her grandchildren, as well. “I don’t think anybody in my life inspired the spirit of generosity and giving in me as much as Juju did,” said grandson Nick Haight.
“Every year, at Thanksgiving, we used to sit in a big circle with her and go around one-by-one and talk about how we gave back that year. What organizations did we donate to? How did we give back our time by volunteering? What did we do to give to those who were in need? She was always proud of us for it and she was always extremely committed to charity and giving,” he said. “That is something that has stuck with me and the rest of the family after she has passed, and I hope that she inspires others to give back as well.”
Granddaughter Savanna Poole characterized Judy Brinson as “a force of nature” with a talent for bringing people together. “She had a magical way of moving the unmovable, and in a time of unprecedented polarization, she understood the importance of connection and community,” Poole said. “She taught our family that paying it forward is the most important responsibility we have to one another. Not a day goes by that we don’t miss her, but we are so proud of the legacy she left at WCU and across the state of North Carolina.”
To assist with their shared philanthropic endeavors, the couple formed the Jack and Judy Brinson Foundation in 2006.
So just how did a UNC Greensboro graduate with no direct affiliation with the westernmost institution of the UNC System come to be one of the top donors in WCU philanthropic history? It all goes back to when the Brinsons moved to the mountain community of Highlands in 1993.
There, they frequently came in contact with WCU students who were working part-time in the town’s resorts, restaurants and shops to help pay their way through college. They became friends with supporters of that regional comprehensive university a little more than 30 miles north down N.C. Highway 107. They attended a summer lecture series that brought WCU professors to the mountain hamlet to share their expertise and they visited the Highlands Biological Station, an internationally renowned facility for research in one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet.
Over time, those early informal acquaintances grew into full-fledged connections. Alumnus Phil Walker, former chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, asked Jack to join the Foundation Board of Directors in 2011, and Highlands residents Mark and Kathy Whitehead asked Judy to consider joining the advisory board for what was then simply called the Honors College, a living and learning community for high-achieving students.
Little did Jack and Judy know at that time that their surname would one day adorn the oldest and one of the largest residential honors colleges in the UNC System. Kathy Whitehead, a longtime supporter of WCU’s Honors College, remembers the day that she helped connect Judy to the college.
“Judy was my very dear friend. When I asked her to join the Honors College Advisory Board, she did so enthusiastically and with total commitment. Her love for the honors students, her joy at being with them, her compassion and generosity, her wisdom and ideas and her kindness, these were her motivation,” Whitehead said.
“It became a very personal journey for her that no student should ever have to leave school because they could not pay a $200 bill, that travel abroad could be available, that the undergraduate research program could happen in spite of lack of funds and that the dean should have emergency funds to help students stay in school,” she said.
Through joint meetings with the Honors College Student Advisory Board, participating in ceremonies for the presentation of Honors College medallions to graduating students, attending summer research symposia, and planning receptions and “pot pie parties” at homes in Highlands, Judy Brinson got to know some of the Honors College students and hear their stories.
“Mark and Kathy had formed a very close relationship with Brian Railsback (then the Honors College’s dean) and other Western professors who came to Highlands to teach courses at the Center for Life Enrichment,” Judy Brinson once said. “Through these associations, we learned just how important this university was to the entire region of Western North Carolina. It became clear to us that WCU filled a critical need in this area for students who otherwise would not be able to attend a four-year university.”
Upon learning more about the university and seeing firsthand the financial hardships faced by many of its students, those maternal instincts kicked in. Judy and Jack decided to make an initial pledge of $50,000 to create the Jack and Judy Brinson Honors College Endowed Scholarship, launching the beginning of a series of what they called “gifts of love.” After many more of those “gifts of love,” they were inspired by a $1.23 million pledge of cash donations and an estate gift from then-Chancellor David O. Belcher and wife Susan Brummell Belcher. As a result, the Brinsons increased their own support in the amount of $1 million in October 2017.
“Our original support was for current scholarship needs and we received many letters from students telling us how crucial these scholarships had been in allowing them to continue their education,” Jack Brinson said then. “Neither of us came from wealthy backgrounds and we are incredibly grateful for the opportunities and success we have enjoyed. Giving back to these very deserving Western students has given us so much satisfaction.”
The Brinsons went on to double their commitment to $2 million in the next year through an estate gift made as part of the “Lead the Way Campaign,” only the second comprehensive fundraising campaign in WCU’s history, with an initial goal of raising $50 million in support with a primary focus on endowed scholarships. (And, thanks to gifts from the Brinsons and more than 12,000 other supporters, the “Lead the Way” campaign concluded in May 2019, more than two years earlier than anticipated, with its final tally of $61.8 million surpassing the original goal by $11.8 million).
They made that second $1 million pledge in honor of their late sons, Kristopher and Kevin Brinson, as both a legacy for them and for the Honors College. “Every student who receives a Brinson Scholarship will continue to honor Kris and Kevin, and WCU will be stronger as well,” Judy Brinson said in announcing the commitment.
The WCU Board of Trustees in 2019 unanimously approved the naming of the Honors College as the Brinson Honors College in recognition of their legacy of giving and ongoing financial commitment to the institution’s mission of academic excellence.
“Judy and I are dedicated to supporting Western Carolina to make sure these gifts of love will last for a long time and future generations are impacted,” Jack Brinson said, calling WCU a “beacon of light and hope for the region and the state of North Carolina” during the naming ceremony held in September 2020. “We will do so by planning future gifts of love and estate gifting, as well.”
Through their ongoing generosity, Judy and Jack Brinson have helped the university move closer to the top goal of the Brinson Honors College vision statement – being able to provide scholarship assistance to every Honors College student with financial need. In 2019, fewer than 30 percent of honors students received a scholarship from the college, said Jill Granger, the college’s dean. Today, that figure is closer to 40 percent, and every new first-year student admitted to the Brinson Honors College for the current admission cycle is receiving the Premier Pathways Scholarship in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the college.
Their contributions also have been used to create the Brinson Honors College Program Endowment for Experiential Learning to support undergraduate research, study abroad, study away, professional development, training, internships and other experience-based education, Granger said.
“Every day, I see the impact that Jack and Judy have had – and continue to have – on the development of our students and the Brinson Honors College. When we talk about the values that guide our mission, those are reflective of Jack and Judy’s passion for service, community and leadership. Their love of people and understanding that education is fundamental to helping people reach their potential is a guiding light to what we do every day as we work to support our students. Knowing Jack and Judy has been a blessing in my life, personally, and an honor to have their trust and confidence, professionally,” Granger said.
Simply saying the name “Brinson Honors College” is a constant and inspiring reminder of their “gifts of love,” she said. “What I found remarkable about Judy was her genuine interest in individuals, not just in supporting students generally, but her particular interest in students. She loved meeting them, loved connecting with them and was energized in working to create opportunities to support their success. She had a way of making you feel like she was your advocate. Certainly, I felt that way and continue to even today,” Granger said.
The impact of Judy and Jack Brinson is certainly not lost on the 322 – and counting – honors students past and present who have benefited from their generosity. Known as Brinson Scholars, many of them shared their sentiments after the formal naming of the Brinson Honors College.
“I received multiple scholarships through the Honors College, but I was most proud of receiving the Brinson Scholarship,” said Ashley Layland, a 2018 graduate who majored in chemistry with a minor in biology. “It's easy to feel like I'm not good enough to be in the Honors College or in grad school, but receiving a scholarship based on merit was so empowering and helped show me that I am worthy, that I am good enough and that I do deserve all of the things I've worked so hard for.”
After graduating from WCU, Layland enrolled in the physician assistant graduate program at Gardner-Webb University, an opportunity she says would not have been possible without her experience at the resources of the Honors College.
Waynesville resident Nicolas Allison, an Honors College student majoring in biology, plans to go on to medical school after graduating from WCU next year. “The gracious support I have received from Jack and Judy Brinson my first and second year has allowed me to pursue my academic goals and interests. Their continued support shows what an ideal honors college student should be, someone who gives back to their community and strives to be the best they can be,” Allison said.
Kyla Ann Little, a 2019 graduate with a major in theater and a minor in international business, traveled to New York City and studied abroad at the University of South Wales through support from the Honors College before going on to the University of South Carolina to pursue her master’s degree in costume design and technology.
“As a first-generation college student, the only way I was able to navigate higher education was through the generosity of people such as Jack and Judy Brinson,” Little said. “This generosity has furthered my knowledge, how I fit in this society, as well as laid grounds for a career that I am immensely grateful to have the means to pursue. Without the burden of extreme financial student debt, I am able to pursue a master’s in fine arts in hopes to make this world a better place. I simply cannot thank the Honors College and those who made this possible enough.”
And Christian Edwards, a Clayton resident on track to graduate this year with a degree in nursing, called the Honors College a “silent, proud and gentle hand offering guidance and assistance to its students in times of distress” and thanked the Brinsons for their positive impact on his life. “Many others and I will actively put our best foot forward in our lives ahead to become people and professionals that you would be proud of in our respected disciplines and fields of study,” Edwards told them.
The Brinsons also have made significant gifts to the Catamount Club and to scholarships for at-risk financially needy students at WCU. Their philanthropy extends beyond WCU, including gifts to the Boys & Girls Club of Henderson County/Hendersonville, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Open Hand Atlanta, Central Piedmont Community College Foundation, Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center, Central Carolina Community College and Mission Health System.
To honor the memory of his late wife and continue the couple’s “gifts of love,” Jack Brinson in November 2021 created a new scholarship fund for WCU students with financial need, the Judy Brinson Annual Scholarship, which will provide a total of $500,000 in financial support over the next five years. Recipients must have a grade point average of 3.0 or higher, with special consideration given to students who are members of underrepresented groups.
And longtime family friends Greg and Mary Thompson, of Atlanta, established the $25,000 Judy Brinson Endowed Scholarship Fund, also in November 2021. The new fund will provide scholarship assistance to deserving Honors College students from North Carolina beginning with the 2022-23 academic year.
WCU’s Honors College traces its beginning to 1997 with 77 students in Reynolds Hall. It now has more than 1,300 students and residential space in Balsam and Blue Ridge residence halls.
“As a residential college that is fully interdisciplinary, the Brinson Honors College has developed a learning community for high-achieving students that seeks to integrate the entire range of student experience, from academics to students’ affairs, particularly in the first and second years of the undergraduate experience,” said Richard Starnes, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “This learning community is thriving thanks to the generosity of people like Jack and Judy Brinson.”
And Judy Brinson leaves behind a legacy of love, service and generosity, the seeds of which may have been planted by the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
“Mom said she remembered this poem from the first time she heard it in high school and she tried to live her life by it, as well,” daughter Freda Philbeck said. “‘It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’”