Several years ago Martha Ingram made a trip to New York City with what was a fairly typical itinerary for her: meetings of the Business Committee for the Arts, a New York Philharmonic black-tie opening night gala with an all-Dvořák program that included Yo-Yo Ma playing the Cello Concerto, cocktails before the concert and dinner after.
As she sat down to dinner that evening, Ingram introduced herself to the man seated next to her, adding that she was from Nashville.
“You must have felt so uncomfortable hearing this music that is so different from what you are accustomed to hearing,” said the man, a copyright attorney from New Jersey. “Is this the first time you have been to New York?”
Er, not exactly.
Others might have succumbed to the temptation to lob a withering retort, asking the man whether he had ever ventured west of Newark Bay. But Martha Ingram—then chair of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust, tireless advocate for education and the arts, a woman Fortune magazine had named a few years earlier as the nation’s wealthiest businesswoman—did no such thing. Instead, she answered with the same charm and patience that have served her well all her life.
As a matter of fact, she told her dining companion in that soft voice which still bears witness to her Charleston origins, she had attended Vassar College and was quite familiar with New York. And Nashville, far from being a cultural backwater, recently had completed a symphony hall that was inspired by the world’s great concert halls.
Ingram would know. After all, she had accompanied the group charged with designing Nashville’s new symphony hall on a tour of Europe’s famed orchestral halls. She didn’t tell the man from New Jersey that she was, in fact, the driving force behind the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and the person largely responsible for rescuing the Nashville Symphony from bankruptcy 20 years earlier—or that the cultural and educational scene in her adopted city is immeasurably richer for her presence.
Ingram, the first woman ever to chair the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, has overseen that venerable body during a period of unprecedented growth for the university, from 1999 until her retirement this past spring. During her tenure the board selected its seventh and eighth chancellors—Gordon Gee in 2000 and Nicholas S. Zeppos in 2008.
“She has achieved what she has by leading strong-willed men,” says Zeppos.
That Vanderbilt now has a residential college system is in no small measure due to Martha Ingram, who recognized its value early on and worked with two chancellors to make it a reality.
“I think she tried to imagine a Vanderbilt that would still be Vanderbilt but would take these values of friendship and community and implement them in a new, fresh way,” says Zeppos. “I’ll never forget her standing up at a board retreat and insisting on the residential college concept. And of course, she’s also made a number of transformational gifts to help make it all happen.”
“It seemed to me that we were reaching out and pulling in students from more and more places—Nebraska, New Mexico, California, everywhere—and fewer were coming with a crowd,” Ingram says. “They were all alone, some away from home for the first time.”
The Commons, the first phase of Vanderbilt’s College Halls system that was completed in 2008, is geared toward providing first-year students with a comforting transition into life at a competitive international university. And now a planned expansion, with groundbreaking of Kissam College Halls slated for next spring, eventually will transform the entire undergraduate experience.
During its Board of Trust meeting this past spring, Vanderbilt surprised its retiring chairman by announcing that the residential complex for first-year students would be renamed The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt.
Two first-year houses at The Ingram Commons, which now dominates the Peabody campus, also bear names that honor Ingram ties. But walk around any part of the Vanderbilt campus, and you can’t miss the vast impact Ingram support has meant to the university and medical center: The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. The Blair School of Music. The E. Bronson Ingram Studio Arts Center. The Owen Graduate School of Management.
Since Martha’s late husband, E. Bronson Ingram, established the Ingram Scholars Program in 2004, more than 200 Vanderbilt students have received full-tuition support and stipends for summer projects, while giving back to the community through volunteerism.
The Ingram family has endowed more than 20 professorships and chairs, from engineering to special education, from neuroscience to coaching excellence.
At Vanderbilt we have come to think of Martha Ingram as our own. But, in fact, a host of institutions and causes has benefited from her talents and resources, among them Vassar, the College of Charleston, Ashley Hall (the girl’s school she attended as a child), Belmont University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, Harpeth Hall, Montgomery Bell Academy, Ensworth, and the Spoleto Festival USA.
Born and reared in Charleston, S.C., Martha Rivers Ingram was the firstborn of three children. Her father, John M. Rivers Sr., got his start in banking and made his fortune after acquiring Charleston’s only radio station, later obtaining the license for South Carolina’s first television station, WCSC-TV. As young girls Martha and her sister, Betty Craig, accompanied their parents on yearly trips to New York, where their father had frequent business. (Martha’s brother, John M. Rivers Jr., was born 10 years later than she was.)
Their parents were active in Charleston civic and social life. “You weren’t put on this earth just to be pretty and take up space,” Martha’s maternal grandmother often reminded her. “I was to do something to make the world a better place,” she remembers.
When it came time to select a college, John Rivers Sr. wanted his daughter to choose the top school that admitted women students. For Martha, that meant Vassar.
“I remember friends of my parents chastising them for letting me go to that ‘Northern college,’ which was certain to turn me into a ‘Communist,’” Ingram recalls. “My father snapped back that ‘Martha is more likely to change Vassar than Vassar is to change Martha.’”
The day she arrived at Vassar in her best suit and matching hat and gloves, she remembers, “older students were welcoming new students, and almost all of them were wearing Bermuda shorts with knee socks. One of them said to me very kindly, ‘You look so nice, but you don’t have to wear such fine things.’ That suit and hat went into the back of the closet and never came out again.”
Academically, though she had been concerned about being able to keep up, Ingram excelled. “This is an absolutely brilliant paper,” a professor wrote on the first paper she submitted for a first-semester philosophy class.
During her senior year at Vassar, a friend persuaded her to spend the weekend in New York City, where she was to be set up on a blind date with a young man from Nashville named Bronson Ingram. They saw Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady and heard Edith Piaf at a Manhattan nightclub.
Bronson Ingram had attended Vanderbilt for one year before transferring to Princeton, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953. Following a two-year Navy stint, he was working in his father’s business, Ingram Oil and Refining Co.
Bronson’s and Martha’s relationship bloomed and, despite the distance, they were soon dating each other exclusively. The following spring Martha graduated from Vassar with a history major and English minor. Back in Charleston, she went to work for her father, who was grooming her to take over the family business. She worked as his secretary and convinced him to let her program the FM station with classical music.
“There were not many receivers for FM then, so it was not exactly a high risk for him,” she says. “I also had to sell advertising for that time slot. Not wanting to go on the air as my father’s daughter, I used the pseudonym of Elizabeth Crawford, my great-grandmother from North Carolina, and I lowered my voice to sound more mature, maybe even sexy.”
In May of 1958, when Martha came to Nashville for the Iroquois Steeplechase, Bronson proposed. They were married that fall and set up housekeeping briefly in Belle Meade before Bronson was sent to New Orleans, headquarters of Ingram Oil and Refining. During the three years the young couple lived in New Orleans, their two eldest sons, Orrin and John, were born just 12 months apart. But business soon called them back to Nashville. The ensuing years were busy ones as the Ingrams added two more children, David and Robin, to their family.
After the unexpected early death of his father, Orrin Henry “Hank” Ingram, in 1963, Bronson’s business responsibilities increased as he led Ingram Industries to become one of the nation’s largest and most successful firms.
Bronson’s parents had been generous with their time and financial support of Vanderbilt, although both had attended other universities. Bronson was elected to the Vanderbilt Board of Trust in 1967 and became a tireless champion for the university, always willing to tell others how Nashville benefited from the presence of the university and its medical center.
Martha, meanwhile, was getting involved at Vanderbilt, too—first by serving on the local Junior League board and working with her sister-in-law, Alice Ingram Hooker, to pave the way for Vanderbilt to take over the Junior League Home for Crippled Children, which became part of what was then Children’s Regional Medical Center at Vanderbilt.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed Martha to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center. The experience helped refine her view of what Nashville could be.
“I thought we needed something like the Kennedy Center in Nashville because there was no place to have opera, ballet or professional theater,” she says. “I wanted my children to have exposure to the arts, which was something I had too little of as a child.”
Her quest to bring what would become the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) to Nashville consumed much of her time during the 1970s as she enlisted the support of Nashville movers and shakers.
“We all marveled at the way Martha got government involved, raised money and found community support. She was in her element then, and it was an important time for her,” remembers Ann Wells, BA’58, MA’60. “Many people who are 37, as Martha was then, don’t yet have the stature, or gravitas, that they have when they are older. Martha already had much of that then, though she attained more, and became even more her own person in later years.”
TPAC opened in 1980. Thirty years later the center presents up to 500 performances each year, attended by up to half a million audience members. Up to 75,000 students and teachers participate in programs of TPAC Education each year.
As if her civic and charitable endeavors weren’t enough, at Bronson’s request Martha had come to work for him at Ingram Industries in 1979. One of his reasons, he explained, was that he wanted her to be able to keep things going should anything ever happen to him.
“It never occurred to me that he would not live at least as long as my father did, to age 84,” she remembers.
During those years Martha Ingram also played a pivotal role in enhancing the Blair School of Music, which had been an independent school before 1981, when it became Vanderbilt’s 10th school.
Joe B. Wyatt, Vanderbilt chancellor from 1982 to 2000, remembers the first time he met Martha Ingram. He had come to Nashville to talk with Vanderbilt Board of Trust members about the prospect of becoming Vanderbilt’s chancellor after Alexander Heard retired. Wyatt stayed at the home of Sam Fleming, BA’28, and during an early morning swim in the Flemings’ pool, he scraped his forehead.
“The instant Martha saw me with this scrape on my forehead, which wasn’t all that much—it wasn’t bleeding or anything—she hustled me back into the bathroom and put some makeup on it,” Wyatt remembers. “She wanted me to be presentable at a little gathering of some sort. She was very caring and interested in my position, but also wanted me to look good.”
Bronson Ingram and Joe B. Wyatt made a good team for Vanderbilt. In 1989, Bronson was named chair of the Campaign for Vanderbilt, which raised $560 million for the university and medical center. With Wyatt’s encouragement, the Ingrams established the Ingram Scholars Program in the fall of 1994.
That same year, Forbes magazine ranked Bronson Ingram as the 56th richest American and Ingram Industries as the country’s 14th largest privately held company.
Then, on Dec. 1, 1994, Bronson was diagnosed with metastatic carcinoma of the central nervous system and brain. He and Martha carried on with life as usual for as long as possible, hosting the first Ingram Scholars dinner in their home.
Bronson was just 63 when he died June 15, 1995. The Ingram Industries board elected Martha as chairman a week later.
“I never had a business course as such,” Martha says. “Whatever I learned was osmosis through my father and then through Bronson, certainly. I’ve had to read a lot of balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements in my time.
“I would be less than honest,” she adds, “if I did not admit that it has turned out to be quite a lot of fun to be chairman of a big company.”
Since Bronson’s death, the Ingram commitment to the university and medical center has only grown. In 1998 the family made a gift unprecedented not only at Vanderbilt, but in academia. The New York Times called their gift of stock valued at $300 million the largest gift ever to a university.
Now, with her Vanderbilt Board of Trust leadership behind her, Martha Ingram will stay involved through her ongoing support of the Blair School of Music, College Halls, and the Ingram Scholars program, among others.
Ingram will also continue her work with the Nashville Symphony. She continues as chairman of the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, where she has pledged to raise funds for a new performance hall. And she will have more time for travel and golf.
When she is at home, Ingram will also maintain her tradition of hosting Sunday night suppers for her family when they are in town. All four children and their spouses live in Nashville, with 12 grandchildren.
At some of those dinners, the conversation is bound to turn to Vanderbilt. The four Ingram children have grown up with both Vanderbilt and the family business in their blood. Beginning when they reached age 14, all four were required to spend at least four weeks during their summer working in the family business.
“What [Martha and Bronson] did is a classic example of how to pass on wealth and responsibility and privilege to those who follow you so that it does not destroy them,” says Steve Turner, BA’69, whose own family also has left its mark on Vanderbilt. “You have trained them so well that it makes them stronger, and your family winds up being a wonderful group of leaders that means so much to the city.”
Orrin Ingram, BA’82, chairs the advisory board of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and the Medical Center Affairs Committee, and serves on the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust; he was vice chairman of the Shape the Future campaign. John Ingram, MBA’86, is a member of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust, and chaired the Shape the Future campaign for Vanderbilt athletics. David Ingram, MBA’89, chairs the Owen Graduate School of Management’s Board of Visitors and was co-chair of the strategic planning committee for Owen’s Shape the Future campaign. Robin Ingram Patton, the driving force behind the building of the E. Bronson Ingram Studio Arts Center, also is involved with the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital and Vanderbilt athletics.
“Vanderbilt has been an important part of the Ingram family for generations,” Martha Ingram says. “We care deeply about this university’s stability and success, and as we transition to the next board chair, I couldn’t be more pleased that my sons Orrin and John are carrying on the ‘family tradition’ as members of the Board of Trust.”
In April 2010, Mark Dalton, JD’75, was elected to succeed Ingram as chairman of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust. Dalton, the CEO of Tudor Investment Corp. and its affiliates, spent the past year working with Ingram as he prepared to take on his new role this past spring.
“Under Martha’s leadership as board chairman, Vanderbilt has made extraordinary strides in nearly every area,” Dalton says.
Like Ingram, Dalton had been a leading proponent for Vanderbilt’s move to a residential college system, and has been one of the supporters of the next phase of Kissam Halls, which will house upperclass students. The $115 million project, expected to be complete in fall 2014, will be funded entirely through philanthropy and internal resources.
Dalton was himself a beneficiary of others’ generosity when he came to Vanderbilt Law School after earning his undergraduate degree at Denison University. He was the recipient of the prestigious Patrick Wilson Scholarship, which helped foster his appreciation of community involvement. He has served on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust since 2002, and was chairman of the Denison board from 2003 to 2009.
His ties to Vanderbilt are, like Ingram’s, multigenerational. His eldest son, Erik, earned his degree in economics from Vanderbilt in 2003, and his younger son, Christopher, earned his degree in history in 2009. “As my connections to Vanderbilt have deepened,” he says, “I’ve been drawn more and more into the life of the university.”
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt certainly has not seen the last of Martha Ingram. “It’s just fun dealing with the students,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed the interaction that has come through the Ingram Scholars program. We have the youngsters out for dinner now and then.”
The day before her 70th birthday a few years back, when Martha Ingram met with 50 of the Ingram Scholars who have benefited from her family’s generosity, they gave her 69 roses.
Ingram gave one back to each student, the implied message clear: You can give something away and still have more than enough for yourself.
GayNelle Doll and James M. Patterson wrote this article. Some of the material used was taken from a privately published biography of Martha Ingram written by D.B. Kellogg.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
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“Mother taught us by example. At the dinner table she wanted us to talk about current events and what we were doing. We were all pretty rowdy. [When Bronson was out of town] Mother would bring a riding crop to the dinner table, and when we’d get out of control, she’d threaten to use it on us. She was so sweet that when she did spank us, it was just a tap. It was almost comical.”
“Mother does a nice job of being willing to listen. She keeps calm, she doesn’t get flustered, and she has a way of validating that she hears the other person. She doesn’t make cheap promises. Her style de-escalates most situations because no fundamentally decent person feels very good, no matter how mad he is, about ranting and raving at Mother for a long time. A person might start to think, I am not a very good person if I’m sitting here, beating up Martha. She is listening to me, and I’m acting like a jerk.”
“Mother was the soother in the family; my father was the disciplinarian. Having a soother combined with a disciplinarian was good for the four children’s mental health. If you had two disciplinarians or two soothers, you could end up with a mess from going too far to either extreme. My parents were very complementary to each other.”
“My mother always said, ‘Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you.’ Then she would say, ‘To whom much has been given, much is expected.’ Oh, my gosh, did I hear that over and over again. She lectured us until we almost died. We numbered them, and then she would lecture us about the lecture we’d just had.”