Although separated by four generations, two relatives find MC worthy of support

Although separated by four generations, two relatives find MC worthy of support

By Dr. Gerald W. Gibson, Maryville College President Emeritus

If someone introduced him as William Thaw Collins, Jr., a Maryville College alumnus/a might well find the name vaguely familiar. For Maryville students of the early 1920s, the name would have been instantly recognized, or at least the “William Thaw” part would have been. The Maryville campus boasted a brand-new building in 1922, and it bore the name of a man whose principles and generosity left enduring marks in Maryville’s history.

William Thaw “Bill” Collins, Jr. is the great-great-grandson of the William Thaw memorialized by Thaw Hall.

For muscle car enthusiasts, the name William Thaw Collins, Jr. isn’t easily recognizable, but the name Bill Collins definitely is. In the 1960s, Bill was an advanced design engineer for the Pontiac Division of General Motors. He was a key engineer on a team that developed an iconic automobile credited for initiating the muscle car era – the Pontiac GTO.

After the Pontiac GTO, Collins worked with John Z. DeLorean to create the 1973 Grand AM and eventually the DeLorean DMC-12, that 1980s unforgettable pop culture automobile made famous in the movie “Back to the Future.”

After parting ways with DeLorean, he started the Vixen Motor Company to create what he considers his crowning achievement, the Vixen motor home.

“Only 560 Vixens were built,” he said. “But this was a dream of mine that I got to work hands-on from vision to end.”

When I met Bill and Nina Collins, it was on a beautiful day in early October.  I flew with Maryville’s Director of Development, Eric Bellah, and former Board member Steve West to Michigan’s Northern Lower Peninsula, where Eric interviewed the Collins couple. They have a lovely home nestled in the woods on the shore of Lake Michigan, just outside the village of Northport. Northport is small, less than two square miles in acreage, with a population not much greater than that of the Maryville College student body in 1922.

For much of his life, Bill knew little about his great-great-grandfather and nothing at all about Maryville College. It was in wandering around on the Internet, exploring Thaw history, that he discovered the connection between his ancestor and the College. From noticing that there was a Thaw Hall on the Maryville campus, he probed further and began to discover his great-great-grandfather’s motivation for making generous donations to this southern college.  Maryville was a place, Thaw found, that had long provided education without regard to race, a practice that the Pittsburgh Presbyterian railroad man championed, and conveyed Christian principles both in its policies and its classrooms. (For more about William Thaw, see “About William Thaw.”)

Whether through the inevitability of genetics or as the product of good parenting, Bill found a resonance with those very same qualities of Maryville College that had motivated William Thaw four generations earlier.  So, as with his great-great-grandfather, Bill decided in 2011 to become a College benefactor.

“We thought that since he was so influential [at Maryville] that we would come back in his memory and sort of augment what was started many, many years ago,” he said.

In the short span of five years, Bill and Nina have supported scholarships for students, helped to fund annual operations, participated in the renovation of Anderson Hall and, most recently, funded major improvements to Thaw Hall (see “Thaw Hall Improvements Complete”).  This is all very consistent with the precedent set by William Thaw.

It is consistent, too, with the kind of altruistic initiatives Bill and Nina have taken in Leelanau County, Michigan, where Northport was once the county seat.  You can look in almost any direction there and see evidence of the impact that the couple is making in their community. There is a new art center, a restaurant with a bowling alley and a beautiful nine-hole golf course. They have done all this quietly and modestly – again, in the mold of Bill’s great-great-grandfather.

“I think we just feel a responsibility to help out other people because we have been very blessed with what we’ve done all our lives, and we would like to share that,” he explained.

It is unsurprising that some in Northport have only half-jokingly suggested that the village be renamed “Collinsville.”

Something similar happened with William Thaw back in the 19th century, when Maryville’s Board of Directors proposed changing the name of the college to “Thaw College.” Thaw modestly declined the honor, but his influence unquestionably served to shape the College we know today in a powerful way. No wonder that the Collinses resonate with its qualities in the 21st century.

“The more we read and learned, it made sense [to support the College],” Nina said. “Education is no less important than it was then. In fact, it is more important now.”

William Thaw, his influence on Maryville College notwithstanding, never set foot on its campus. Bill Collins has likewise made a big difference at Maryville without the benefit of seeing Thaw Hall or any of the campus buildings, and has yet to meet any of Maryville’s students and faculty. But the distance from Northport to Maryville today is much less than was the distance from Pittsburgh to Maryville in the late 1880s, so that visit may still come about.

I hope it does.

Maryville College is privileged that this descendant of William Thaw discovered Maryville and that an inspiring, 19th-century story is being updated and shared with new generations.

“I would like to think that [Thaw] would be happy with what we are doing,” Bill said.

*This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of FOCUS magazine

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2017 semester is 1,181.