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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Passing the Ball

Passing the Ball

Greehey Family Foundation’s $1.8 million in gifts to UTSA includes $500,000 for football scholarships

Bill Greehey’s father was not happy. His only son was already a teenager­, so it was time for him to quit school and go to work in the nearby gypsum mining mills.

But young Bill had other ideas.

“I wanted to go to college,” he said.

Little did he realize that in displeasing his father, he’d launch a path that would take him not only to the pinnacle of the business world as CEO of a large, international energy firm, but also lay the groundwork for giving back to his community.

He would be instrumental in the creation of a transformational facility serving the homeless and also a family foundation assisting dozens of UTSA students, many of whom would be the first in their family to graduate from college.

But that would be far into the teenager’s future.

It was the 1950s in Fort Dodge, Iowa. His parents, neither of whom graduated from high school, struggled with their minimum-wage jobs. As soon as young Bill turned 11, he began working in the cornfields every summer. At 15, he worked alongside his father in the gypsum mill during breaks from school. It was expected that he make the job full time as soon as possible.

“Kids in my neighborhood, no one graduated from high school,” he said, recalling his working-class roots. “As soon as they were 16 years old, they went to work in the gypsum mills. That was kind of expected from me.”

But in junior high, he experienced the truth about his family as well as that of every other family in the neighborhood.

“I’m first-generation and I know what it meant for me to go to college and how hard it is for other first-generation students. Education was the key to my success. You graduate from college, but the one thing you learn from college is you never quit learning.”

Bill Greehey

They were happy and content, but they were poor.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where everybody was poor so you didn’t know you were poor,” he said. “All of a sudden kids from the North Side came together and I saw a different lifestyle that I hadn’t seen before. That’s when I decided very quickly that I wanted to get an education and improve my life over what I had seen in my neighborhood.”

Because there wasn’t money to afford college, Greehey enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he spent almost four years. Then, with the help of the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at St. Mary’s University.

Married and with two children, Greehey worked a full-time job parking cars at the Nix Hospital garage in downtown San Antonio, while at the same time signing up for a full load of college classes.

Less than three years later, he graduated with a degree in accounting.

His first job was with accounting giant Price Waterhouse, making just $450 a month. Again, his father was upset.

“He said ‘I don’t understand you. You sacrificed all this time with the military and going to college. You could be working at the mill for $450 a month.’ And I said ‘Yeah, but I’m not always going to make $450 a month.’”

They would be prophetic words.

Within just a few years he was earning $100,000 annually working in finance for oil and gas companies.

“Then my father said ‘No one should be making that kind of money,’” Greehey said with a laugh. “I couldn’t win.”

Greehey quickly climbed to the top of the corporate ladder, becoming the founding CEO of San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corporation, which he built from a regional natural gas pipeline company into a Fortune 500 company and the nation’s largest independent petroleum refiner and marketer.

Today, he is chairman of the board of directors of NuStar Energy L.P. and NuStar GP Holdings, LLC, which operate 8,420 miles of pipeline, 84 terminal and storage facilities that store and distribute crude oil and refined products, and two asphalt refineries and a fuels refinery.

It is safe to say he went on to make considerably more than $100,000 a year through his career.

Bill Greehey was instrumental in the creation of Haven for Hope. It is just one of many outreach endeavors he has championed.

He stopped talking about finances with his family years ago. But he has not stopped trying to make a difference with the money he has earned.

In 2004, he set up the Greehey Family Foundation. Since then, the foundation has given $100 million to community organizations. UTSA has received $1.8 million from the foundation and the family; the most recent gift of $500,000 is geared toward student-athletes in the year-old football program who are the first in their family to go to college.

University officials note that Greehey’s generosity will have far-reaching impact.

“Our students will get the opportunity to not only compete in an incredible collegiate sport, but to also fully immerse themselves in their degree programs because of Mr. Greehey’s gift,” said Athletics Director Lynn Hickey. “This gift is going to change a tremendous number of students’ lives, and it has the ability to change the cycle of life within their families.”

Greehey’s focus is on students who are the first in their families to go to college.

“I’m first-generation and I know what it meant for me to go to college and how hard it is for other first-generation students,” he said. “Education was the key to my success. You graduate from college, but the one thing you learn from college is you never quit learning.”

The impact of Greehey’s gift is even greater because of that focus, Hickey said.

“He knows firsthand what it’s like to work through college as a first-generation college student,” she said. “They have a unique experience and most of them must juggle many responsibilities at the same time. This gift ensures that they won’t have to worry as much about the financial strain of education.

“Not only is the gift special, it is a long-lasting teaching moment because when a person like Mr. Greehey gives back, it shows our students that they, too, can be wonderful role models by giving back to others down the road.”

Greehey has been recognized for his contributions to education and community service. In 2006, he began working with the City of San Antonio to build a multiservice facility to provide one-stop social services to homeless individuals and families. Called Haven for Hope, it is a state-of-the-art homeless transformation center that is the national model in the fight against homelessness. It is also the hardest and most rewarding thing he’s ever done, he said.

His interest in community service isn’t new. While at St. Mary’s, he undertook a battery of tests to see what he was best suited to do. They predicted he’d work in social services.

“So now I’m in social services,” he said. “I came around, and I made enough money in accounting to do it.”

He’s also instilled in his family a love of giving. When his granddaughter was 10, she found out about Greehey’s work with Haven for Hope and wanted to help. So she took the money she kept under her pillow, tucked it into an envelope, and gave it to him. It was only a few dollars.

“I asked her, ‘Is this all the money you have?’ She said yes, so I told her not to give it all away. She said ‘Papa, I don’t need it for anything.’”

Recalling his granddaughter’s generosity, Greehey is joyful and passionate when he talks about the work he’s done in the community.

This, he said, is his legacy.

“Nobody is going to remember how much money I made or how many refineries I bought,” he said. “But what they will remember is the difference I made in the community. And that’s how you should be remembered, how you give back.”

–Lety Laurel

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