Donald W. Reynolds never forgot the MU education that made his media empire possible.
In the mid-1920s, a college student of modest means received a $22-a-month scholarship to attend the University of Missouri. Compounded by nearly 70 years of hard work and a relentless drive to succeed, that $22 turned into more than $100 million for Donald W. Reynolds’ alma mater through donations from his foundation to programs, buildings, faculty and students.
Sweaty and sticky from a taxing shift of stunning steers and pulling a carcass truck, the high schooler could have climbed into his own Model T and driven home. Most teenagers would have. But after work, he smelled like a meatpacking plant, and he’d invested too much in his coupe to sully its interior. So every day after school, Don Reynolds prevailed upon his younger sister to drive him to and from work so he could ride on the car’s outside running board and avoid fouling the car.
It was the early 1920s, decades before his generosity would begin to remake the University of Missouri, but Reynolds already displayed the hard work and tenacity that would take him from humble Oklahoma City beginnings to a national media magnate.
Donald Worthington Reynolds, BJ ’27, was born in 1906. His father, a traveling wholesale grocery salesman, was home only on weekends. Growing up, he was close to his sister, Lois, often taking her for a cup of cherry phosphate and a movie on Saturday afternoons. Thus begins Donrey Media: A Low-Profile Group, an undated and unpublished account of his life commissioned by Donrey Media Group and written by the late William H. Taft, professor of journalism at MU. It contains a trove of information about Reynolds’ youth and business life.
Reynolds’ industriousness was evident early. At age 14, he was the best street salesman for the local Oklahoma News. He bought the newspapers for a half cent each and sold them for a penny. He was so good at it that Ray Fields, then a relatively green managing editor, consulted Reynolds about which potential Page 1 stories would sell best.
In high school, Reynolds helped establish his school’s first student newspaper. By senior year, he was the business manager, an experience that later served him well as an advertising major at the Missouri School of Journalism.
While in college, Reynolds held several odd jobs, including waiting and busing tables, selling and placing ads, and helping dig out what eventually became Memorial Stadium. During summers he returned home to work 60 hours a week at the slaughterhouse for 34 cents an hour to save for tuition. As a student assistant for advertising Professor E.K. Johnston, Reynolds received the Eugene Field Scholarship. At $22 a month (about $300 in 2014 dollars), it paid the same as 65 grueling hours at the meatpacking plant. He traded up to a newer Model T, but he was no spendthrift. He was known at MU as “the boy with patches on his pants.”
Patches or no, “the boy” could sell. By his junior year, as business manager for The Savitar, he sold enough ads to pay that year’s production costs and leave a $700 surplus for the 1927 edition.
What Reynolds saved on trousers, he socked away for his future.
He graduated with a few hundred dollars to his name, which helped him through a rough few months that saw him fired from two newspaper advertising jobs, one with the Kansas City Journal-Post and the other with the Indianapolis Times. He kept in touch with his professors to find employment leads. On a three-day trip over dirt roads from Indiana to Texas to start yet another job, this time at the Austin American-Statesman, Reynolds vowed never to be fired again.
In Austin he made a career-changing connection with Charles Edward Marsh, the paper’s co-publisher and editor-in-chief. Marsh noticed Reynolds because he always seemed to be in the newsroom. That’s because he was. By day, Reynolds worked as an advertising salesman and by night as a reporter to earn extra income.
In Marsh, Reynolds found a partner in various entrepreneurial efforts. Using his college savings and a loan against his car, he bought a minority share in a photo engraving shop with Marsh. Later, he bought his own stake in another photo engraving business in Oklahoma City. By hustling more than his established competitors — Reynolds and his staff cold-called potential clients daily — Reynolds was able to boost sales and sell his third of the business two years later for a $10,000 profit.
From there, Reynolds went on to acquire many newspapers, some with Marsh, some on his own. He bought the first paper that would become part of the Donrey Media Group in 1940. He later added radio and television stations, and cable television and outdoor advertising companies, eventually owning more than 100 properties.
Through it all, Reynolds never lost touch with Mizzou.
For decades, he kept the four Savitar volumes he worked on at his Donrey executive office in Las Vegas. He credited his business success to the education he received from Mizzou. He also was involved in the Mizzou Alumni Association and occasionally flew back to Columbia for football games and Jefferson Club dinners.
Tom Schultz, BJ ’56, former president and executive director of the association, first met Reynolds as a volunteer in the late 1960s or early 1970s. “His love was for the alumni association,” Schultz says, and Reynolds had a close friendship with the late Guy “Bus” Entsminger, BS Ed ’49, M Ed ’50.
In the late 1980s, three MU officials traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to ask Reynolds for his first major gift to MU. The trio included Entsminger, who had retired as vice chancellor for alumni relations and development and was serving as director of MU’s Graham Center for Estate Planning; then-Chancellor Haskell Monroe; and Roger Gafke, BJ ’61, MA ’62, then-vice chancellor of development, university and alumni relations.
At the time, the alumni association was housed in a building adjacent to A.L. Gustin Golf Course, southwest of campus. Reynolds, who had received the association’s distinguished service award in 1980, wanted to see a new alumni center built in the heart of campus. Monroe asked him to give $9 million to make that happen.
But first, Reynolds wanted to have a little fun.
Gafke remembers that Reynolds sat silent for a moment after Monroe’s presentation. “We could support that,” he finally said. “Nine hundred thousand dollars isn’t so much.”
The MU men’s hearts caught in their throats.
Fred Smith, a longtime top Donrey lieutenant and chair of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, tapped his boss on the shoulder. “Mr. Reynolds, that’s 9 million.”
“Oh, yes!” he said. “We can do that.”
The Donald W. Reynolds Alumni Center was dedicated in 1992. Reynolds was confined to a wheelchair later in life, and according to foundation President Steven Anderson, the dedication ceremony was the last time Reynolds stood, singing the alma mater, a tear running down his cheek.
That alumni center gift changed the campus landscape. It also was transformative in the history of the university, says Professor James Sterling, BJ ’65, Missouri community newspaper management chair and former member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators.
The idea of making large gifts to public universities was not commonplace in the 1980s.
“[Reynolds’ gift] moved us from being a little Midwestern school to being at a national level in terms of the size of gifts,” Sterling says.
Gafke says the gift “redefined levels of appropriate giving,” which was part of the appeal they made to him at the time. “We think [your gift] will get everybody else to step up,” they said.
It wasn’t the last time a Reynolds gift would have such an impact. A decade after his passing in 1993, another gift began a period of generosity in support of journalism that will be Reynolds’ legacy. In 2004, his foundation pledged $32 million to establish the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI), a center for research and development on the future of news. It is still the largest single donation in the university’s history. When RJI opened in 2009, the foundation donated another $15 million to fund its initial operation. A further $30 million, pledged in 2012, will establish an endowment that will provide half the institute’s operating funds.
Most recently, in September 2014, the foundation announced it will use the last of its money to donate $10 million to fund faculty salaries for associate and full professors in the School of Journalism. The donation pushed the foundation’s total giving to MU to nearly $103 million.
Dean Mills has been the journalism dean since 1989. Too many times, he says, he’s watched good professors leave MU for schools that could offer higher salaries. So, when Anderson asked him what last gift the Reynolds Foundation could make that would have the biggest impact on the school’s future, he didn’t miss a beat.
Leaving a Legacy
The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation has supported a range of projects with its nearly $103 million in donations to MU:
$55,500 donated between 1987 and 1997
Donald W. Reynolds Alumni Center
$8.4 million donated between 1989 and 1992
Reynolds Journalism Institute
$77.9 million, donated and pledged between 2003 and 2012
MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging
$3 million donated between 2003 and 2014
Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism
$3.6 million donated between 2009 and 2014
Reynolds Foundation Faculty Excellence Fund
$10 million pledged in 2014
“Instead of having a loyalty tax for faculty who stay on many years, as many faculty do, we’ll have a loyalty rewards program,” Mills says. “That’s something no other school has, and it will be a great asset.”
The $10 million won’t be available until 2021. In the meantime, the school will seek matching funds from donors that will allow the school to establish 50 faculty fellowships, enough to cover every associate and full professor who does not already have an endowed chair. The endowment proceeds will fund faculty stipends, research and travel.
“It’s a particularly sweet gift,” Mills says, “because, of all the grantees the foundation has had, it selected his alma mater as the recipient of the final gift.”
In all, Reynolds, through his foundation, donated $2 billion to universities, hospitals, civic groups and other nonprofits, mostly in the southwest, where his media properties were concentrated. The gifts to MU supported the full range of university activities — students, faculty, programs and buildings.
Looking to the future, Mills sees the reverberations from the investments in journalism research and faculty salaries continuing to grow.
“They guarantee quality forever.”