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Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University

Helping the Environment and W&L

"W&L's Environmental Studies Program gives future leaders the incentive and the knowledge to preserve the natural resources we have left."

from The Bridge: Fall 2009 issue

A chance encounter at a grocery store a decade ago led Earle Bates '54 to support Washington and Lee's Environmental Studies Program.

After moving back to Lexington in 2000, Bates had become acquainted with Jim Kahn '75, who was just getting the program off the ground at W&L.

"I was in Kroger one day and met Jim Kahn there," Bates explains. "He was buying Cokes and potato chips for an Environmental Studies luncheon that he was having that afternoon. The fact that the head of the program was taking care of these details on his own struck me. I thought to myself, ‘This guy needs help.' "

Bates's burgeoning concern about the environment inspired him to do something. He struck a deal with the University to use income from an IRA to make annual grants supporting the Environmental Studies Program's operating costs.

Bates wanted his gifts to have immediate, practical impact. Initially, he targeted his support to allow Kahn to hire a research assistant. In subsequent years, Bates and Kahn have sat down together and determined the best way to use his annual support. The steady source of income has helped Kahn grow W&L's Environmental Studies program in new directions. For example, Bates's support has funded guest lecturers and a scholarship for Environmental Studies majors, among other things.

One day, Bates plans to permanently fund the Environmental Studies Program. He's now supporting the program with income from his IRA, but he has made arrangements to bequeath the IRA to W&L through his estate, creating an endowment for Environmental Studies. The endowment will be a permanent legacy in an area that Bates cares about deeply.

Bates says, "I didn't wake up in the middle of the night and decide I was interested in this issue. When I was growing up, the environment and what we were doing to it was not something that we thought about.

"But there was a gradual awareness as I began to see how the degradation of the environment was spoiling the American way of life, threatening to do permanent damage to this country and our economy. W&L's Environmental Studies Program gives future leaders the incentive and the knowledge to preserve the natural resources we have left."

Environmental Studies is also important to W&L, and a natural fit in a 21st century curriculum. The University has tagged Environmental Studies as a key program to endow in its new campaign. Bates' bequest intention is a good start in meeting that goal.

From the window of his cottage at Kendal of Lexington, Bates can see the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains once the leaves fall. And when he and his dog, Willis, take walks, he has better views of the mountains and surrounding vistas, such as Brushy Hills, reminders of why he fell in love with the area during his student days.

That was among the reasons that Bates chose to retire in Lexington. "I think that retired alumni would do well to look at small college towns like Lexington for their retirement location," he says. "The opportunities are remarkable."

And the potential for chance encounters at Kroger are endless, too.