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Brinson Honors College dean launches scholarship fund in memory of father, grandfather

jill granger commencement

Jill Granger, dean of the Brinson Honors College

By Bill Studenc

From her vantage point as dean of the Brinson Honors College at Western Carolina University, Jill Granger has seen firsthand the powerful impact that scholarship support has on students who need financial assistance in order to pursue their educational goals.

That’s why she and husband Robert Granger have made gifts and pledges totaling $25,000 to establish a new endowed scholarship fund in honor of her father and grandfather. The Nelson Family Fund in Memory of Thomas B. Nelson and Ronald F. Nelson will provide scholarship assistance to Brinson Honors College students in good academic standing and who demonstrate financial need.

Granger said that supporting the institution where she has worked since 2015 in ways beyond her responsibilities as dean is a way to live up to her personal values and express her appreciation to the institution.

“As someone who works directly with students and donors, I have a front-row seat when it comes to seeing what a difference philanthropy can make in our students’ experiences,” she said. “And our donors are such wonderful people. It’s very inspiring to work with them, especially when you can see their ideas come into reality and create new opportunities for our students.”

Granger listed Highlands residents Andy Chmar and Gayle Watkins as an example. The couple made gifts and pledges last year creating two new endowments at WCU – one to provide scholarship aid to Brinson Honors College students for study-abroad programs and the other to support faculty members who develop and guide those learning experiences and undergraduate research activities. Both endowments began providing annual support beginning in the 2023-2024 academic year.

“Their gifts in support of student study abroad have already made a huge difference for our students and are laying the groundwork for future growth in study abroad,” she said.

She also credits the college’s namesakes with helping create a culture of philanthropy that has benefited students for years. Jack Brinson and his late wife, Judy, have made more than $2.5 million in gifts and commitments since 2007 that have provided assistance to hundreds of students in the Honors College that now bears their name.

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.

“The dedication of the Brinson Honors College in 2020 was a career high for me,” Granger said. “Working with Jack and Judy Brinson, and their close friends Mark and Kathy Whitehead who co-chaired our Honors Advisory Board, was such a joy, especially in my first few years here at WCU. They really put their values in education at the forefront, which was inspiring for me to see and understand.”

She was so inspired that she decided to create an endowed scholarship fund using proceeds from the sale of her family’s farm in Rush County, Indiana. Her father, Ronald F. Nelson, was an avid environmentalist, fisherman, hunter and “do-it-yourselfer” and an employee of General Motors who taught his children to value education and a strong work ethic. He was killed by a reckless driver while on route to a family gathering in 1987 at the age of 43.

Her grandfather, Thomas B. Nelson Jr., was patriarch of Nelson Farm, the gathering place for generations of the extended Nelson family. He was a beloved “Papaw” to 15 grandchildren, including Jill Granger. He served in the Navy in World War II and worked as a bookkeeper. He suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991 after meeting his great-grandson and namesake, Thomas Mack Granger, for the first time and the same week that his mother, Vera Nelson, died at age 93.

The Grangers’ son, Thomas, is a WCU alumnus who earned his master’s degree in biology in 2019, and daughter-in-law Rebecca Lewis Granger earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2019 from WCU.

By setting up this endowment in perpetuity for the benefit of future generations, the Grangers are honoring the memories of Tom and Ron Nelson and commemorating their legacy of love, family and educational values, she said. “The Granger family – including daughters Danielle, Jesse and Marie-Irene, son-in-law Luke Allison and Ryan Wilmington – are grateful to WCU and honored to support generations of future students in pursuit of their educational goals,” she said.

She is among the more than 350 faculty and staff who go beyond their job duties by making financial contributions to WCU and who are recognized as members of the Shetland Society.

“Western makes it very easy for faculty and staff to get involved in philanthropy, so it’s not like you have to be a six-figure donor to make a difference,” she said. “We have regular donors to the Brinson Honors College who are faculty or staff and make monthly donations of $5. To me, that’s inspiring. They don’t have to do that, but they trust and honor us to do that good work. I appreciate that as a campus leader and want to do my part as well.”

One of four giving societies established by the Division of Advancement in 2020 to celebrate the impact of philanthropy, the Shetland Society is named for the Shetland ponies that then-Chancellor A.C. Reynolds purchased in 1912 to haul supplies by cart back and forth from Sylva to campus.

A campaign to increase faculty and staff membership in the Shetland Society recently concluded Friday, Oct. 20, but faculty and staff may give to their desired designation(s) at any point during the year. For more information, contact Rebekah Cheney, director of annual giving, at 828-227-2868 or via email at

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