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A Tradition of Generosity

Jan 4, 2019
by By Brian Thompson, '95

The Kenan name has become synonymous with Flagler College, gracing some of the most recognized buildings on campus and stretching back to the very earliest years of the college.

Image of college founders huddled for a group photo.

More than any other single individual or organization, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust has been a key partner throughout the college’s 50-year history, giving nearly $20 million to Flagler.  

“The long-time support of the Kenan family and the Kenan Charitable Trust has been instrumental in the development of the college, from our beautiful campus to the strength of our academic programs,” said Flagler President Joseph G. Joyner. “We owe them a debt of gratitude for being instrumental in keeping the college open in the early years, stabilizing the institution as it grew and continuing to provide substantial opportunities for our students, faculty and staff.” 

Major projects have been possible thanks to Kenan Trust support: funding for the renovation of the college’s first academic building, Kenan Hall, in the 1980s; a multi-million dollar gift in the 1990s for the Proctor Library; the renovation of the Molly Wiley Art Studio; and the Kenan Challenge grant for endowed scholarships and program funds. 

But it hasn’t just been support for campus improvements and buildings. This past year, four Flagler College professors were selected as recipients of the college’s Kenan Distinguished Professorships — endowed positions that recognize excellence in teaching, scholarship and service. Those professors are Dr. Michael Butler, Patrick Moser, Dr. Allison Roberts and Dr. John Young. 

The professorships were funded through a $1 million endowment. The Trust has also established numerous student scholarships including the Lewis-Wiley Scholarships, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Scholarship in Honor of Mary Lily Flagler Wiley, and the Dr. William C. Friday 

A Legacy of Giving 

William R. Kenan Jr. was brother of Mary Lily Kenan, who married Henry Flagler, a co-founder of Standard Oil Trust, railroad magnate and namesake of Flagler College. By the end of 1917, both Henry and Mary Lily had passed away, leaving Kenan and his two surviving sisters as heirs to one of the nation’s largest fortunes. 

When Kenan and his advisers began preparing his will decades later, he reportedly told his longtime secretary, “I feel this money has been given to me as a trust. I have got to preserve it and make sure it does something worthwhile.” 

He put about $95 million of his $161 million estate into establishing a trust for educational purposes, and after his death, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust started its formal grant-making program. After distributing more than 800 grants worth nearly $500 million, the Trust has a market value today in excess of $650 million. 

The Trust has focused efforts on initiatives improving literacy and college preparedness, community-building and economic vitality, and inspiring a sense of collective purpose and shared humanity. 

In recent years, the Trust has focused more on project-based grants dealing with causes like eradicating poverty and homelessness, enhancing creativity and innovation, strengthening early childhood through college education and improving access to healthcare. 

The Importance of Education 

One of the Trust’s earliest initiatives was the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professorships, first established at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The fully-endowed professorships recognize and reward accomplished scholar-teachers who exemplify a commitment to teaching and undergraduate student learning.  

From an initial focus on excellence in teaching at the university level, the Trust has expanded its scope to the entire educational pipeline, making significant investments to enhance the quality of primary through professional school programs, including early childhood literacy, innovations in K-12 pedagogy, and strengthening collaborations between business and private enterprise.  

The work of the Trust has been shaped by the vision of Kenan family members who continue to serve as Trustees. Thomas S. Kenan III has combined his years of business experience with a love for philanthropy, the arts and historic preservation. He has worked closely on a number of historic preservation projects throughout North Carolina and Florida.  

Mary Lily Flagler Wiley, who went by Molly, served as Trustee for the Kenan Trust from 1996 until her death in 2010. Reared in St. Augustine, she was instrumental in focusing investments on historic preservation and education, as well as helped guide the transformation of the Hotel Ponce de Leon into Flagler College. 


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