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Former WCU tennis player serves up $1 million fundraising campaign gift

grattan gift tad susan

Tad and Susan Grattan

By Bill Studenc

A former Western Carolina University tennis player and his wife have served up an ace for the Catamount athletics program in the form of a $1 million contribution to the university’s “Fill the Western Sky” comprehensive fundraising campaign.

Tad Grattan, a 1987 WCU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sport management, and spouse Susan recently made the financial commitment to his alma mater out of a desire to help future Catamount student-athletes have access to the type of top-notch athletics facilities lacking during his time as an intercollegiate tennis player.

The gifts and pledges from the Grattans came after a meeting with Alex Gary, WCU director of athletics, and Chancellor Kelli R. Brown.

“They enlightened me that, in terms of funding for athletics, we are in the bottom percentile of the Southern Conference. I felt like it just wasn’t fair that we still don’t have the resources to be able to do the things our athletes need. I said, ‘I have the ability. I want to give them something that can really transform them and give them a more competitive environment in which to play,” said Grattan, who is retired after selling Align Networks, an outpatient physical therapy network he cofounded in 2005.

“And, I didn’t want to do it when I’m 75. I wanted to do it now so I could see it, feel it, believe it. Sometimes when you’re in the thick of working and family and life and everything else, you think to yourself, ‘Do I really want to give a large donation?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I want to do it. I want to see it. I want to watch these facilities happen.’”

The Grattans’ gift is the largest commitment to date toward athletics facilities improvements as part of WCU’s $75 million comprehensive fundraising campaign, which has a significant focus on enhancements to athletics facilities. As a key priority within the campaign goal, WCU aims to raise at least $30 million in philanthropic gifts to support upgrades to athletics facilities.

“We are incredibly grateful for the Grattans’ commitment to the Fill the Western Sky campaign,” Brown said. “This $1 million gift will help us make huge strides in the much-needed athletics facilities renovations, which will make an immense difference in the lives and careers of our student-athletes.”

Gary called the Grattans’ contribution an important step in meeting that goal. “Tad and Susan’s leadership gift is an example of their belief in Western Carolina University and the vision we have for athletics as a significant contributor to the mission of WCU,” Gary said. “We are honored to have them support this transformational project in a significant way.”

Tad Grattan discovered WCU by accident as a young tennis player from Florida. “I went to tennis camp in 1975 in Asheville. My parents dropped me off and went to the Cashiers-Sapphire Valley area. My mom and dad fell in love with the place,” he said. “That’s where we went almost every summer – to the Cashiers and Sapphire area – and that’s how I learned about Western.”

When it came time to choose a college, Grattan decided he wanted to go to that university he passed on his way to the Cashiers area. He enrolled in WCU’s Academic Success Program, a conditional admission program designed to help students make a successful transition from high school to college.

“In essence, if you took three courses during the summer prior to your freshman year and passed all those courses, you would be accepted into Western. I took those classes, lived in Benton dorm and that’s how I came to Western,” said Grattan, a resident of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. “It wasn’t easy for me.”

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As a freshman, Grattan joined the men’s tennis team, competing all four of his years at WCU. The university no longer has a men’s tennis team, an unintended consequence of Title IX regulations requiring institutions receiving public funding to provide equal opportunities for male and female student-athletes.

“Part of being a student-athlete at Western, which was great, was the reality that we had to learn how to do more with less. We just didn’t have the facilities or the resources that other schools had,” said Grattan, who also was a Marine Corp Reserve member as a freshman and sophomore, and a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.

“I remember going to Davidson and Furman and thinking, ‘Holy cow, look at this place.’ Our school is the prettiest of all of them in the Southern Conference in terms of the mountains and the views and the beauty of it all. Now it’s time for us to have better athletics facilities and be competitive in the Southern Conference.”

After graduation, Grattan enjoyed a brief stint competing on the Association of Tennis Professionals, or ATP, Tour. “It was like playing on a Single A baseball level. It’s a stretch to say I was professional, but I was. I was ranked and traveled all over the world,” he said.

Competing against players who came from larger institutions with more resources and superior facilities was an eye-opener for Grattan.  

“Traveling with folks who went to bigger schools – USC, UCLA, SMU – I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I went to little old Western.’ It’s not that I was embarrassed, but I thought, ‘Man, if I had gone to a bigger school, maybe I would have been a better tennis player,’” he said. “But, I realized later in life that Western taught me so many things and helped me to be what I call ‘a grinder,’ somebody who had to work harder with a little bit less. That transformed my whole life, and I feel I owe that back to Western.”

Although he had attended Catamount sporting events in previous years, Grattan never ventured far from E.J. Whitmire Stadium until about a year ago. “One thing that really blew me away was seeing some of the new buildings on campus – the science building and some of the new dorms. I was blown away by how impressive the new facilities are, and I realized we need to do that for athletics as well,” he said.

While WCU has seen numerous facilities improvements for academics and student life, there have been no major construction or renovation projects for athletics since the mid-2000s. The West Side Stands were added to E.J. Whitmire Stadium in 2003. The Catamount Athletic Complex – home to women’s tennis, women’s soccer, and men’s and women’s track and field – opened in 2005, while the Catamount Softball Complex opened in 2006.

“It’s been a while since people have seen a major change in athletics facilities and have seen ground being broken to start something new. This is my start to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to put some really substantial money down to help get this thing going so people can see we can have the first-class facilities that will give our athletes that competitive edge,” Grattan said.

Grattan cites recently unveiled renovations to the Catamount men’s and women’s basketball teams locker rooms and video room as an example of providing alumni and friends with something tangible regarding athletics facilities improvements.

“Alex and the chancellor have a strong vision of where we need to be. With our support, we can start building something that people can see when they come to campus,” he said. “As Western has grown in terms of enrollment, a lot of people thought the athletics department was reaping all of this state money. The reality is it’s not. When people realize we just don’t have the kind of financial backing that a lot of these other schools have, it’s time to step up and help out.”

Both Tad and Susan Grattan are members of the Fill the Western Sky Campaign Steering Committee. The former Susan Meister married Grattan in 1998 and is a former advertising executive with wedding planning website The Knot.

Although she is not an alumna of WCU, said she was glad to join her husband in supporting the athletics program at his alma mater.

“Our two sons are both student-athletes, so we’ve seen this not just from Tad’s perspective as a collegiate tennis player but also from the viewpoint of parents,” she said. “We think it is important that schools are giving their student-athletes access to top facilities with ample resources so they can perform at their best in their chosen sport as well as in their studies,” she said.

Tad Grattan said he is glad to give back to WCU – and to do so now rather than in the future through an estate gift.

“Western is a very special place. Anyone who ever went there will say that. Now we’ll have the facilities so that when a student-athlete comes and looks at Western versus another school, that athlete will say, ‘Wow. Not only is this beautiful and not only am I going to get a great education, but they’ve also got athletic facilities to back it up.’ That’s going to make us more competitive to bring in better recruits, better athletes,” he said.

“That’s what I’m trying to help do. There’s a part of me that wanted to wait and do it later, but I decided I want to do it now and I want to see this. I want to be able to feel it, touch it and be a part of it. I’ve been very fortunate and very lucky. When I look back, I realize Western was a big part of that. For that, I need to give back, and that’s what I am trying to do.”

For more information about how to support the Catamount athletics program, contact Julie Miller, associate athletics director for development, at 828-227-3084.

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