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$25 million gift from David W. and Holly Wilson launches endowed fund scholarship
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$25 million gift from David W. and Holly Wilson launches endowed fund scholarship

The University of Northern Iowa proudly announces Jenna Meyer as the inaugural recipient of the David W. Wilson Scholars Endowed Fund Scholarship.

Meyer, a senior from South Tama High School, was surprised with the news of her selection as the first-ever David W. Wilson Student Scholar during a break between classes.

David W. Wilson’s transformative $25 million gift to UNI paved the way for the creation of the David W. Wilson Scholars Endowed Fund, which is dedicated to supporting deserving students who reside in Tama County, Iowa.

Meyer’s selection as the inaugural Wilson Student Scholar honors her outstanding achievements and symbolizes the beginning of a legacy of excellence and empowerment at UNI.

‌“This scholarship represents a commitment on the part of David Wilson to educational access, excellence and community impact for deserving students from Tama County. This gift will provide unparalleled opportunities for future generations, empowering recipients to achieve their dreams,” said Leslie Wilson, dean of the Wilson College of Business at UNI.

“Jenna Meyer embodies the spirit of perseverance and achievement that the scholarship is designed to recognize and support. We are thrilled she is our inaugural Wilson Student Scholar. I am confident she will be instrumental in establishing a legacy of empowerment and achievement for Tama County students here at UNI.”

Growing up in Traer, Iowa, a mere 30 minutes south of Cedar Falls, Wilson’s deep roots in the community inspired his commitment to providing educational pathways for future generations of Panthers.

The establishment of the Wilson Scholars Fund represents the hope and promise to empower countless students to achieve their academic and professional aspirations.

“I wanted to apply for this scholarship just by reading about David Wilson and his story,” said Jenna Meyer. “It’s really special that I’m the first one ever to receive this. It’s a really big honor and I’m very grateful.”

While Meyer is the first-ever David W. Wilson Student Scholar, eventually four will be funded annually.

The David W. Wilson Scholars Endowed Fund Scholarship covers tuition, room and board and fees, aiming to provide unparalleled opportunities for students in Tama County who demonstrate exceptional promise and financial need.

David W. Wilson considers his story to be emblematic of the American Dream. Through sheer determination and a belief in doing business the right way, he rose from a small-town Iowa kid with a lower middle class background to become chairman and CEO of Wilson Automotive, one of the country’s largest privately held auto dealerships.

As the eldest of five children, Wilson’s first exposure to entrepreneurship came as a paperboy delivering the Des Moines Register and Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in his home town of Traer. His father, the late Logan West Wilson was a former rodeo cowboy who worked as a machinist for John Deere and his mother, Dinsdale native Elaine (née Johnson) Wilson also worked full-time. Eventually the Wilsons moved to a farm outside of Traer, where David supported his family in raising horses and performing other chores.

While neither of his parents attended college, it was always expected that Wilson and his siblings would further their education beyond high school. With his mother arranging to cover the first year of his schooling, Wilson worked a series of blue collar jobs – lathe operator and night mechanic among them – to finance the remainder of his education at UNI. By his senior year, he was selling cars at a local dealership.

A degree from UNI offered David a well-rounded education. Through courses in logic, ethics and philosophy, he would learn the critical thinking skills that helped make him successful in business. He would graduate in 1970 with a degree in philosophy and a minor in business.

Following graduation, Wilson and his budding family including his wife Holly Wilson moved to Arizona. As the family’s Lincoln limped into a Phoenix-area dealership, Wilson made a decision that would change his life. When he learned the vehicle repairs wouldn’t be covered under warranty, Wilson persuaded the manager to make him a salesman so that he could get an employee discount on the service.

Within five years he would own a 25% stake in the business, ultimately leveraging the partnership to launch his own dealerships throughout the southwest United States and parts of Mexico.

Wilson Automotive now comprises 18 automotive dealerships and related companies, employing more than 2,500 people. These corporations’ annual sales total more than $3 billion, making Wilson Automotive one of the largest dealership groups in the nation.

Over his career, Wilson has earned many honors for his business and philanthropic leadership. Chief among them was his induction in 2005 into the Horatio Alger Association, an organization that celebrates “the achievements of outstanding leaders who have accomplished remarkable successes in spite of adversity.”

With that honor, he joined a diverse membership that includes Ronald Reagan, Maya Angelou, Buzz Aldrin and Clarence Thomas, who would don Wilson with the medal signifying his membership.

“I believe with success comes increased responsibility,” he told an interviewer at the time. It’s a philosophy that has defined his career. In an industry commonly associated with unscrupulous business practices, Wilson strove to “do well by doing good.”

Wilson was asked to ponder the enormity of his gift to which he responded, in part: “I’ve become very wealthy by doing good. … I’m going to run out of time before I run out of money.”

“The way I was raised you need to plant in the spring if you’re going to reap in the fall.”

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