The Collegian
Sunday, July 12, 2020

After death, Oldham's legacy lives on in scholarship

Although a life's accomplishment for many people would be changing the life of one person, for University of Richmond honorary alumnus and trustee emeritus W. Dortch Oldham, who died Feb. 26 at 89, his duty was to help as many as he could.

"If the only monument I left when I died was, 'He made a million dollars,' I'd feel like a horrible failure," begins Oldham's biography.

Far from a failure, Oldham began Richmond's first full merit scholarship program -- the Oldham Scholars -- in 1983 with his wife, Lenore 'Sis' Oldham.

The Oldham Scholars program -- unique for providing full tuition, room and board -- books and a $3,000 travel stipend, has transformed Richmond into a university that can compete with Ivy League schools for the highest-caliber students, said Greg Oldham, the second of Dortch Oldham's five sons. It also made Richmond a school with a special focus on student needs, he said.

"That scholarship has changed the face of the University of Richmond," said Oldham, who visited campus this week to interview Oldham finalists for the class of 2013.

In addition to displaying the highest academic achievement and dedication to extracurricular activities, Oldham scholars differ from Richmond's other scholars because of their leadership qualities, Oldham said.

"I want to afford an education to kids who will become leaders in the future," Oldham said his father had told him.

Dortch Oldham's intention was to encourage his scholars to explore everything they could to prepare them to change the world, without having to worry about money, Greg Oldham said.

Sophomore Oldham scholar Matthew Castelli summarized the program's impact on his Richmond experience in one word: freedom. He said he could have never had the time, money or freedom to explore the opportunities that he had without his Oldham scholarship.

Instead of spending 40 hours a month working at a job to pay for school, he now helps deaf children improve their speech. He said his collegiate choice was made when he realized there were people who cared and wanted a group of students to spend that kind of time dedicated to whatever their pursuits were.

"The Oldham community is less impressive for how well they perform on standardized testing than what they're passionate for outside the A-B-C-D-E bubbles," said Castelli, who said he had spent all but two weekends this semester on trips exploring his latest passion, rock climbing, after restarting the club at Richmond.

For Dortch Oldham, Richmond was where he learned anything he knew about polite society, Greg Oldham said. He said his father was a country boy who had probably never seen a napkin before attending Richmond, where he learned how to wear clothes and have table manners.

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"There is no poorer place in any of these states than the Cumberland Plateau," Greg Oldham said, referring to where his father grew up. "[Richmond] gave him the idea that there were things in the world he could do."

Dortch Oldham attended Richmond on the advice of W.E. Henderson, his sales manager at Southwestern Publishing Company, where he earned his tuition money by selling Bibles door to door after hitchhiking to Nashville when he was 16 years old, according to his biography, "Each Man his Mountain."

"He was genuinely a self-made man," said Linda Hobgood, speech center director and Oldham Scholar selection committee member.

Dortch Oldham, who had $7 in savings before hitchhiking to Nashville, eventually took over Southwestern Publishing Company and became a mentor to the hundreds of college students who worked for him during summers. Of the 300 people who attended each of the two visitations for his father as well as his funeral celebration, countless guests said how much Dortch Oldham had shaped them while selling books for Southwestern when they were in college, Greg Oldham said. He didn't just prepare them for their careers, he taught them how to live, he said.

Other guests told Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman -- a close friend of Dortch Oldham and former university president -- that when he established the scholars program, Oldham was the reason they or their children attended Richmond.

The program was established during a breakfast when Heilman and his wife were visiting the Oldhams in Knoxville, Tenn., for the World's Fair, for which President Ronald Reagan had named Dortch Oldham commission general. Heilman said he had pursued Dortch Oldham's friendship and funding after he had noticed his $5,000 check to Richmond, which Heilman's secretary informed him came every year. They became close friends and traveled the world together with their wives, Heilman said.

Heilman said he had wanted Oldham to become more serious about his 12-year donations, but instead of having a building named after him, Oldham wanted a scholarship. He donated $2 million, to which he later added for a $5 million endowment, Heilman said.

Heilman and Greg Oldham said the scholarship was funny because Dortch Oldham had not actually graduated from Richmond in 1941 as commonly printed. In a day without telephones, he had gone home to Tennessee to find where his parents had moved, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, sending him abroad for World War II, Greg Oldham said.

Although Dortch Oldham was just a French credit short of graduation, Heilman eventually awarded him an honorary undergraduate degree and doctorate after convincing the Board of Trustees, on which Dortch Oldham served until he was 80 years old.

Until about five years ago, Dortch and Sis Oldham came to Richmond every year to personally interview the 30 or so Oldham Scholar finalists. Since then, their two sons, Greg and Peter Oldham, have represented their parents on the Oldham Scholars selection committee.

Greg Oldham said he would continue to come to Richmond to help select the Oldham scholars as long as the university would have him. When he and his brother become too old, he said he hoped their children would help keep the Oldham name with the program. He placed his hopes on Mark Oldham's son Houston, who will attend Richmond on a soccer scholarship next year.

Dortch Oldham established a similar Oldham Scholarship program at the University of Tennessee, the alma mater of three of his sons. He chaired the state's Republican Party, was president of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and ran for governor in 1974.

He was a pillar in his Westminster Presbyterian Church and taught Sunday school, Heilman said. He also chaired the boards of the YMCA and the Salvation Army, among other charitable organizations. Starting with donating 10 percent of his income per year, he gave away 20 percent to 30 percent as he became wealthier, he said in his biography.

"I want to be remembered as someone who gave," Mark Oldham quoted his father in the book's foreword, "because I think a giving person is a happy person."

Contact staff writer Maura Bogue at maura.bogue@richmond.edu

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