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History of the W.O. Parmer Scholarship &
Parmer Scholars Foundation

History of the W.O. Parmer Scholarship

During 1925 at the height of the roaring twenties, Walter O. Parmer completed his plan to establish an educational trust after his or his wife’s death—whichever occurred last. The Parmers (wife-Elizabeth “Lizzie” Dunklin) were a very generous couple. They had supported not only the West End Methodist Church in Nashville but also many other charitable organizations. Walter O. Parmer’s will provided specific sums to his brother, Samuel, and his remaining sister, Mary Frances Fuller. He also gave funds to five nephews and one niece along with a faithful household maid, Christine Patton. Interestingly, his younger brother, Clinton Lane, was not included nor were three of Clinton’s daughters; Rubey Gentry Parmer, Ruth Parmer Blair and Lottie Parmer Trice. Parmer’s will also provided his wife, “Lizzie” with an annual income of $50,000 if she survived him. She died April 27, 1934, almost two years after the death of Walter O. Parmer.

The above event triggered the implementation of the trust. The original plan in 1925 was to begin with a $500,000 fund. However, the stock market crash of October 1929 and the subsequent severe economic depression limited the initial funding to $250,000. The first scholarships were supposed to be awarded in 1934. However, during the remainder of 1934 and 1935 certain mortgages had to be paid and property sold. The last piece of the property to be sold can best be described as a “flea bag hotel” in downtown Nashville.

During the early months of 1936, the funding ($250,000) of the trust was in place with the American Trust Company of Nashville. The trust instrument provided for the following:
  • Eligibility requirements: white males over 16 years of age residing in the six Alabama counties of Butler County, Lowndes County, Conecuh County, Covington County, Crenshaw County, and Wilcox County. An applicant must have lived in one of the above counties for at least one year prior to selection. Applicant must be of good character and reputation with graduation from high school, public or private. Academic rank must be in upper fourth of class per certificate of principal and applicant must demonstrate financial need. Limiting scholarships to white males was changed during 1982-83. The funds are no longer limited to race and sex (see below for a complete discussion on the 1982 court action).
  • Apportionment of residence: total beneficiaries at one time limited to 15. One each from Lowndes, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, and Wilcox Counties with remainder from Butler County. Depending upon income available, the Board of Examiners may increase or decrease recipients as well as apportionment.
  • Eligible universities: 25% to attend University of Alabama, 37 ½% Vanderbilt University, 37 ½% Auburn University. These percentages to be followed as closely as possible. Applicants to be given choice when possible. During the period from school year 1936-37 through 2008-09, the percentages are Auburn 49.3, Alabama 39.2. Vanderbilt 11.5.
  • Board of Examiners: to be composed of five male residents of Butler County with the first appointed board by will being:
    William Beeland
    Claude Hamilton
    James H. Dunklin, Sr.
    J. Lee Long
    J. B. Stanley
A letter, dated July 20, 1934, written by J.B. Stanley to the president of Auburn University, P. O. Davis, recalled a meeting of the above gentlemen with Walter O. Parmer at the home of James H. Dunklin, Sr. (brother-in-law) in 1925. During this meeting, Parmer asked the five men listed above to be the initial board of examiners. He also stated that in the case of a vacancy he desired that a son of the vacating father be named to the board. Since 1936, that policy has been adhered to when possible. Claude Hamilton was succeeded by his son, William Hamilton, who was in turn succeeded by his son, William “Pete” Hamilton. This line of attorneys has always served as chairman of the board of examiners. J. H. Dunklin, Sr. to J. H. Dunklin, Jr. to J. H. Dunklin III to present day James “Jim” Dunklin IV continued the policy. J. B. Stanley was succeeded by F. Webb Stanley. Due to William J. Beeland and J. Lee Long not having sons, the line of succession was broken with the selection of William B. Hopkins and Earl McGowin. Hopkins and McGowin were replaced by Charles R. Thompson, Jr. and Mason McGowin respectively. Currently the board consists of chairman Pete Hamilton, Jim Dunklin IV, Mason McGowin, Charles Newton, and Carlton Whittle. The latter two were selected as Parmer Scholars—Whittle 1958 and Newton 1965. The Board appointments are made by the presidents (chancellors) of Auburn and Vanderbilt.

The board members are paid a token stipend for their service. A secretary selected by the Board performs the various administrative duties and is paid a small salary. Mrs. Alma Lowery was the first secretary and served until the 1970s. Numerous letters exist from Parmer Scholars expressing their appreciation for Mrs. Lowery’s assistance. During that time, we were not only Parmer Scholars but also Mrs. Lowery’s boys.

Beginning with school year 1936-37 thru 2008-09, 452 worthy students have been selected to be Parmer scholarship recipients. During the World War II years of 1942-43 thru 1945-46, scholarships were not awarded. However, those scholars who enrolled prior to 1942-43 continued to be funded—and most completed degree requirements before entering military service. The Parmer Scholars were an excellent source of military officers for the Air Force, Army and Navy during WWII. Frank B. Wilson received a BS degree from Auburn in 1941 and an MBA in 1947 from Harvard University while serving as an officer. A Vanderbilt Parmer Scholar (BA 1940—MD 1943) was arrested on the streets of San Francisco in 1943 and jailed overnight due to being a conscientious objector. He had been raised in a deeply religious family from Butler County. After WWII, he completed many Christian medical missions worldwide. The Reserve Officer Training Corps was the threshold by which most Parmer Scholars became military officers from 1946 thru 1966.

Another break in awarding scholarships occurred during school year 1982-83. During the spring of 1982, two young black men decided to apply for the scholarship. The Board of Examiners was placed on the horns of a dilemma. They desired to take the correct action but were restricted by the original trust instrument limitation as to race and sex. To solve the dilemma, the Third National Bank of Nashville (a successor bank of the original American Trust Company) filed a complaint in the Chancery Court for metro Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee. Plaintiffs were the bank and member of the Board of Examiners with the defendants being the three universities and Thomas H. Shriver due to his official capacity as District Attorney General for the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Tennessee. The issue was quickly resolved with the court decree that the limitations as to race and sex were not valid and enforceable. Such provisions were understandable and no doubt legal and enforceable when Parmer’s will was executed and probated in 1932, but in 1982 that was no longer true. The three universities as defendants had filed identical responses to the complaint by urging the court to rule that scholarships be permitted to “all qualified applicants regardless of race and gender.”
The two breaks (5 years total) allowed income of the trust to be accumulated to support future scholarships. However, the return on investments (ROI) was not very great during the 1940s.

Original Nine W.O. Parmer Scholarship Recipients

The photo below is from the Friday, September 11, 1936 issue of the Greenville Advocate was taken in front of the Walter O. Parmer Elementary School building in Greenville. The first nine Parmer Scholars selected for the school year 1936-37 are shown dressed “to the nines”.

Since this photo, these young men enjoyed wonderful lives. A brief review follows:
  • Joe Mack Gafford—Butler County/Auburn University
    During his teenage years, Joe Mack worked several hours each day to support his family while achieving high academic results. He attained the rank of Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts. He was awarded a BS degree in May 1940 at Auburn. During his college years, he was an outstanding student achieving the Dean’s List each year. In 1938, he was selected for membership in Phi Lamba Upsilon, National Honorary Chemical Society, and later Tau Beta Pi. Joe Mack joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon social fraternity and was elected secretary of the chapter in 1938. During May 1939, he was recognized for achieving the highest grade average in the Auburn ROTC Field Artillery Unit. As with most male students in the years prior to World War II, he was preparing to serve as an Army officer. Research continues to determine the aspects of his professional career after the war. He lived in Louisville, Kentucky, for several years and continued to visit relatives in Greenville until his death.
  • Robert W. Dees—Butler County/Auburn University
    Bobby was an active Boy Scout and was voted “Most Useful” student in senior high school by the faculty of Butler County High School. The “Best Sportsman” on the athletic field was also awarded to him. He obtained a BCE during May 1940 at Auburn and was an outstanding student. He entered World War II as a 2nd Lieutenant and was selected to become a pilot. After earning his “wings”, he began a long and successful career in military aviation. During the late 1960s, he was selected to perform a major role in the development of the manned orbiting laboratory. This job assignment relocated the Dees family to Torrance, California, where they remain.

    Robert W. Dees married Edith Barge Steen of Monterey, Butler County, on December 27, 1947. They had a son, Robert W. Dees, Jr. and a daughter Edith B. Dees in 1948 and 1952, respectively. In early 1991, he demonstrated his great appreciation for the Parmer scholarship by contributing 848 shares of Morrison’s, Inc. stock to the Parmer Educational Trust. Thus, he set an example which all Parmer Scholars should follow. Robert W. Dees, Sr. was born November 4, 1918, and died January 26, 2008, having lived a very long and successful life. During a telephone conversation with Mrs. Dees in 2009, she stated that he always expressed appreciation for the financial assistance.
  • Dan Halford—Butler County/University of Alabama
    Raised on a farm in a family of six children, Dan was an excellent student at McKenzie High School. He studied Business Administration at Alabama from 1936-40. World War II interrupted his studies, but he returned to Alabama and completed a BS degree in 1955. During the war he became a paratrooper and attained the rank of captain. From 1946 to at least 1965, he was employed by Plough, Inc. in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was Vice President of Industrial Relations.
  • Henry Ray Cook—Butler County/Vanderbilt University
    Ray, a graduate of Georgiana High School, was awarded the Parmer Scholarship at age 20. He completed a BA degree in 1940 at Vanderbilt and returned in 1940-41 for post graduate study of chemistry. During the World War II years of 1941-47, he worked as a professional chemist for the U.S. Ordnance Department. From 1947 to at least 1965, he worked as a chemist for U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 1965, Ray and his wife of 23 years were living in Takoma Park, Maryland, with their three sons.
  • Richard Brassell—Conecuh County/Auburn University
    Richard was president of the senior class at Evergreen High School and captain of the football team. Since the age of twelve, he was the father figure for the younger members of his family and worked afternoons and nights to support them. During 1936-37, he began the study of Electrical Engineering at Auburn. After college he returned to Evergreen and lived there most of his life. He was the owner of Magnolia Nursery in Conecuh County and later operated a landscaping business in Pensacola, Florida.

    His military experience included ROTC at Auburn, World War II duty, and service with the Alabama National Guard in Evergreen. Unfortunately, Richard D. Brassell, like his father, died at the early age of 61 on May 21, 1979 in Pensacola. He was buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in Evergreen.
  • Marvin Albritton—Covington County/University of Alabama
    Marvin graduated from the Andalusia High School Class of 1934, and at age 21, began the study of pre-law at Alabama. He completed a BA degree in 1940 and served as a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy (1942-46). He returned to Alabama in June 1948 and completed the law requirements during September 1950.

    During 1941, he married Frances O. Adams of Red Level. Their only child, Emily Alice, was born in 1949. Marvin compiled an outstanding academic record during law school. Before returning to Andalusia, he worked for Retail Credit Company after WWII and prior to entering law school. He joined his brothers and Albert Rankin in the firm of Albritton and Rankin in late 1950 and remained until his death.
  • John Donald—Wilcox County/Vanderbilt University
    John of Pine Apple graduated from Moore Academy at age 16. He was one of seven children of the late Dr. James D. Donald. He completed his BA in 1940 and MD degree in 1943 at Vanderbilt. During late 1943, he completed an internship in surgery at Yale University School of Medicine. From 1944 to June 1946, he served as a captain in the U. S. Army Medical Corps. After WWII, he was a resident in surgery at Yale University New Haven Hospital in Connecticut (1946-49). During July 1949, he returned to Alabama and began private practice as a surgeon in Mobile. Dr. Donald achieved the status of Board Certification in February 1952 by the American Board of Surgery.
  • J. D. Lamar, Jr.—Lowndes County/University of Alabama
    J. D. gaduated from Lowndes County High School in Ft. Deposit at age 16. He entered The University of Alabama in the fall of 1936 but a serious illness caused him to return home. He later completed his undergraduate work at Texas A&M. After an extremely successful career in the Foreign Service Corps, J. D. and his wife retired and are living near Clemson University. He communicates with many of his Lowndes County friends via Ham radio on a regular basis.
  • Wilson Davis—Crenshaw County/Vanderbilt University
    Wilson, a straight A student at Luverne High School, received a BE in 1940 from Vanderbilt. During WWII, he served in the Army and Navy attaining the rank of lieutenant in the Navy (the equivalent of captain in the Army). After the war, he completed a masters degree in mathematics from Peabody College in 1951, and a doctorate of education from The University of Alabama in 1955. From 1956 until retirement, he taught mathematics at Delta State College, Cleveland, Mississippi. He was promoted from Associate Professor to Head of the Mathematics Department during his distinguished teaching career.

    As of early 2009, Mr. Davis has given the largest amount among the 452 Parmer scholars to the Parmer Educational Trust. In 1983, he made a gift of $10,000 with no restrictions to the Corpus of the Assets of the Trust. Thus, three of the initial nine scholars (1936-37) have honored their benefactor by continuing his legacy of giving for the educational needs of worthy students.

Honoring Walter O. Parmer and the Formation of the Parmer Scholar Foundation
    During the mid 1960s, Dan Barge, a Parmer Vanderbilt Scholar 1939-1943, led an effort to raise funds to augment the Corpus of the Trust. This effort produced a modest result of about $4,000. Unfortunately, Dan Barge has died, but the remaining Parmer Scholars (386 living in 2009) must continue his effort.

    The final resting place of Walter O. Parmer, the Parmer mausoleum in the Pioneer Cemetery, Greenville, Alabama, has weathered the elements in remarkable fashion. During 1930, Parmer visited Greenville and provided direction for the construction of the mausoleum. Since the initial construction, Parmer Scholars have provided for the maintenance. During 1967, Joseph Talmadge (BA Vanderbilt 1958) and others Parmer Scholars contributed $325 to clean the mausoleum and to place a wreath at the grave site. Frank Thigpen (BS Auburn 1961) placed the wreath at the burial site each holiday season. During the 1976 Bicentennial, a grant was obtained via the efforts of Mrs. Dorothy Parrish to restore the Pioneer Cemetery. During a Greenville High School reunion (1976), four Butler County Parmer Scholars (1956-57) approved contributing the surplus reunion funds ($125) to the restoration effort.

    The Trust documents provided that the Trustee could invest the negotiable bonds and improved real estate in business sections of Tennessee and Alabama cities having 100,000 populations by the preceding census. The initial scholarships provided $750 for Vanderbilt and $500 for Alabama or Auburn. Due to inflation the awards are currently: $3,000 for Alabama or Auburn and $7,500 for Vanderbilt, which only covers partial tuition at all of the institutions. Successful Parmer Scholars need to augment the Corpus of the Trust to ensure that larger yearly dollar amounts are available due to the skyrocketing of higher education fees.

    With this in mind, J.D. Jones specifically encouraged Walter Ray Parmer (both former recipients) to organize a fund-raising campaign, partly because Walter shared the name of the scholarship's benefactor. With the help of many volunteers, Walter spearheaded a research campaign to locate all of the 452 current and former W.O. Parmer Scholarship recipients.

    On May 1-3, 2009, the first major reunion of the Parmer Scholars was held in Greenville, Alabama. As part of the festivities, a wonderful luncheon was held to benefit the Pioneer Cemetery restoration project (location of Walter O. Parmer's mausoleum), which raised $30,000 in contributions and pledges. During the primary day of the reunion, May 2, the gathered Parmer Scholars approved the establishment of the Parmer Scholars Foundation. The purpose of this organization is to
    • raise additional funds to supplement the W.O. Parmer Scholarship,
    • conduct annual reunion of the Parmer Scholars, and
    • maintain a database/website of the Parmer Scholars.