Pop Star

LPW PotraitThere is an age-old debate among aficionados of the iconic beverage as to whether Coca-Cola’s purest taste comes from a bottle, a can or, properly mixed, straight from the soda fountain. But, for those of us at Brenau, the vote should unanimously go to the bottle. Hands down. We can give you at least 3.4 million reasons why.

Coca-Cola patriarch Asa Candler did not really want to be bothered with bottles when the idea was first presented to him by a Vicksburg, Miss., druggist in 1894. The Mississippian had found a market for the non-fountain pop, so named because of the way one opened the drink by smashing the palm of one’s hand into the wire loop that knocked the rubber and cork stoppers inside the bottle with, of course, a resounding “pop.” But in 1899 Candler sold the rights for bottling the beverage to two enterprising young attorneys, Benjamin F. Thomas and Joseph B. Whitehead. And they, of course, became gazillionaires. Here’s where Brenau comes into the story:

Whitehead’s even younger wife, the former Lettie Pate, assumed management of his business affairs after her husband died in 1906. As a result, the Virginia native in 1934 became the first woman to serve on the board of the Coca-Cola Company – arguably one of the first women ever on the board of any major corporation – and there she remained for almost 20 years. Six years after the death of her first husband, she married again to Col. Arthur Kelly Evans, a retired Canadian army officer.

Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans’s fortune increased, and so did her philanthropy. In her lifetime she gave millions to more than 130 different organizations, mostly in Virginia and Georgia, and she named 13 specific beneficiaries in her will. However, the philanthropy continues through the Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation, established by her son, Conkey Pate Whitehead, and the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, which she established before her death in 1954. Over the years beneficiaries have included the College of William and Mary, Emory University and, more recently, Brenau.

The Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for Brenau student scholarships – $194,000 for the 2012 academic year alone with more than $200,000 pledged for the 2013-14 academic year. The separate Evans foundation, which focuses on different needs, has also been generous to Brenau. Since 1983 it has donated close to $3.4 million to the university including $500,000 each for improvements to the Jacobs Building, home of the College of Business & Mass Communications, and $300,000 for improvements to  the 1903-era house at 305 Boulevard in Gainesville from which this magazine is published.

However, by far the largest grant came just this spring when P. Russell Hardin, president of the foundation, notified Brenau President Ed Schrader that it would furnish $1.5 million for technology enhancements connected with the renovation and repurposing of the new Brenau Downtown Center in Gainesville, Ga.

The grant represents a significant portion of the funds the university needed to raise to convert the one-time convention and events venue, formerly known as the Georgia Mountains Center, into a home for a new physical therapy doctoral program and to link other Brenau campuses and online students.

Colleges and universities from around the country compete aggressively for foundation dollars, so donors can afford to be picky. Top-drawer organizations, like the Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Foundation, examine proposals deliberately and seriously with exacting standards for proposals.

Schrader says he hopes the size of the donation will impress other prospective contributors about the worthiness of the Downtown Center project. “You can give a million dollars to a large school and it is a nice gift,” he says, “but at a smaller university, like Brenau, it can be transformational. This gift not only benefits Brenau; it also benefits the entire north Georgia community because Brenau from that facility will produce health care professionals who will help meet the community’s growing needs.”

I will drink to that.

Coke, please. In a bottle.

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