Fayetteville Arkansas, University of Arkansas--Old Main Overview

Fayetteville Arkansas, University of Arkansas--Old Main Overview
Overview of Fayetteville, AR

Monday, April 23, 2007

Reflections on the Life of Helen Walton

Helen Robson Walton, widow of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, died last week. Her passing signifies the end of an era, but her influence will live on.

Lady, Christian, philanthropist, savvy businesswoman, unpretentious, caring humanitarian – these are but a few of the adjectives used to describe Helen Walton. She was a loving wife and mother to Sam and their four children and “the woman behind the successful man.” One might wonder if (in a different generation) she might not have been the founder of Wal-Mart.

Helen Walton was a woman’s libber before that term was even coined. She earned a bachelor’s degree in finance at the University of Oklahoma in 1942, back when such a pursuit was unusual for a woman.

She pushed to have women on Wal-Mart’s board of directors and in 1986 the first woman, Hillary Clinton, joined the board. Helen also understood early on, the long-term importance of providing profit sharing to Wal-Mart employees, to which Sam agreed.

Always active in the Presbyterian Church, Helen was the first female vice-chair and first female chair of the board of trustees for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation. She also was active on the board of the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas, and was its honorary lifetime chairwoman.

Helen Walton personally supervised the $3.6 million scholarship fund for Central American students at John Brown University, University of the Ozarks, and Harding University. According to Wal-Mart, about 1,000 students have participated in this program since 1985. Most, if not all, the students have returned or will return to their home countries after graduating with the intent of improving the lives of their fellow citizens.

She was the person behind the Wal-Mart Foundation, which has given untold millions of dollars to the community. One example is a $300 million donation to the University of Arkansas. The foundation had earlier given $50 million to the university's school of business, which was subsequently renamed the Sam M. Walton School of Business.

Other notable contributions include $39.5 million to the University of the Ozarks, the largest gift to a private institution in Arkansas.

Always interested in education and the arts, Helen Walton was a founding member, organizer and 1992 president of the Arkansas Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

She was the leading supporter of The Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville.

She also was the impetus behind a plan to include computer technology in all Bentonville-area school districts. That project resulted in a computer in each classroom and a computer lab in each building.

Sam started a small business in a very small town, Bentonville, Arkansas. His wife and partner, Helen, was his bedrock all the way. She provided not only heart and business acumen, she was the source of many of the humanitarian practices established in the corporate structure as the company grew.

These days Wal-Mart bashing is a popular activity. A strong anti-Wal-Mart movement exists but it wasn’t always that way. Many people in NW Arkansas, throughout the country, and even other parts of the world will remember Helen Walton and her husband, Sam, for the many trails they blazed.

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