“As an individual, I’m the luckiest person you’ll ever meet in your life, without a doubt,” Doug Ivester said during a recent visit to Deer Run Plantation in South Georgia, which is not only sprawling acres laced with pecan trees and designed for the hunting sport, but also the home the former Coca Cola CEO shares with his wife, Kay.
The Ivesters are natives of New Holland, beginning their decades-long love story there as children, among other things.
Yes, the multimillion-dollar executive known for his prowess, strategies and taste for “the real thing” came from the humble beginnings of a mill town. And not just any mill town But the only one of Gainesville’s three mill towns that still has an operating factory, a major feat in a country where shuttered brutalist structures now haunt those who had laid down roots and planned to work in those factories until the day they earned their gold watch.
Leaning on a rocking chair on the porch of one of his many guest homes, a thin fog danced around the pecan orchard behind him. “I’ve been truly blessed to be the American dream,” Ivester said. “And I realize it, and I live every day trying to find a basis to repay some of the good fortune that’s come my way.”
Hall County citizens can take a piece of that good fortune as it spreads through the community in the healthcare and education sectors, two things Ivester and his wife, Kay, believe in deeply. That’s why they formed the Melvin Douglas Ivester and Victoria Kay Grindle Ivester Foundation.
AccessWDUN’s Alyson Shields and Lauren Hunter recently spent at day with the Ivesters at Deer Run to talk about their life, their legacy and their foundation.
LAYING A STRONG FOUNDATION FOR THE FUTURE
The Foundation has made an impact in the community, aiding educational and healthcare fronts at Brenau University, Gainesville and Hall County Schools, and in New Holland itself.
Most recently, the Ivester Foundation signed an agreement with Gainesville City Schools to offer them the same $10,000 award that they began awarding to Hall County School for their Teacher of the Year. The prize comes along with a reception for the winning teachers.
This is just the tip of iceberg for the Ivesters' involvement in the local school system. As part of that $10,000 to Hall County, the foundation also announced they were investing in the Early College program, hosted at the former Jones Elementary School in neighboring mill town Chicopee Village.
“Early college I think is just a wonderful program, I wish it had been available when I was in high school,” Ivester said. “By the time you graduate from high school, if you’re diligent, you can have one year of college behind you, you only have three years to get your degree. Importantly, you also have one year paid for, so you can graduate from college with 25% less debt than you would have otherwise, if you were borrowing money to do that.”
The funding for the school included a name, from Early College @ Jones to The Howard E. Ivester Early College Program. But, Dean of IEC Michelle Hood said the support was a much bigger gift than just a new name.
“With those funds, those gifts that we’ve received, we can do things like build a new lab that we have for our medical assisting and we hope to build phlebotomy down the road,” said Hood. Phlebotomy is the practice of taking blood, a standard process for many doctor’s visits.
“To offer those things, our students are going to be able see college and career readiness right out of high school. And at the same time we want them to understand that they were given a gift and with that gift comes the responsibility of using your talents and what you have to give back to our community of Hall County.”
Hood said the program is a game-changer for some students, allowing them to get a head start or even learn they aren’t as interested as they thought – before they dive down into student loans and other debt.
The students are also supported by counselors, aids, tutors and each other, as they are not a lone early college student on a college campus, but one of many students sharing the same mindset. Instead of students feeling isolated, they are put with like-minded people, helping them hone social skills and make connections. “It’s like comradery and independence with a safety net,” said Hood.
Hood said the spirit in the students was just contagious and it could continue to be that way class after class as long as the students were supported.
“The impact is not just right now, but generations down the road.” She added that the faculty and staff know how important it is to set a positive example and be good stewards of the funding for the students.
Ivester also said it helps students bridge the gap between high school and college in a meaningful way. He said he felt confident investing in the program after working out arrangements with Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield.
WORKING YOUR WAY UP
It’s not just about preparing students for college either. The Ivester Foundation has donated to Brenau University’s healthcare program, which is now named after the Ivesters, and the Mary Inez Grindle Nursing School, which is named after Kay’s mother, which is part of the Ivester Health Sciences Program in the former Georgia Mountains Center. Doug Ivester has been a Board of Trustee member for decades.
“We had the opportunity during our capital campaign to work with the Ivester Foundation to support one of our strengths here,” said Matt Thomas, Vice President for External Relations with Brenau. The capitol campaign began in 2014. “It’s been transformative as far as what we’ve been able to do here at Brenau, and for the good of the students.”
The Ivester School of Health Sciences includes nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, clinical psychology, biological sciences and all other science programs, as well as an upcoming physician’s assistant program.
Ivester said he had a longtime interest in health sciences, so when Foundation President Lynn Darby approached him about giving back to Brenau, both honoring Kay’s mother and putting their own name on a project.
“We started off with the nursing school, the Mary Inez Grindle School of Nursing, very successful, I believe, in terms of a nursing program. We’ve been in the process of expanding it and then we’ll keep expanding it,” Ivester said.
Thomas said the foundation has allowed Brenau programs not to just expand, but to be flexible for the needs of students.
“It’s expanded the programs we’ve been able to have, so we not only have been able to add doctoral to it, such as physical therapy, but with the funding we’ve just had the flexibility to provide more scholarships for more students, so it’s the largest college that we have,” Thomas said.
EARNING MORE THAN MONEY
Off campus, the Ivesters invested in a very visible project in New Holland. The Howard Grindle ballpark is not only on the site of the old elementary school where Kay and Doug Ivester’s love story began, but it’s across the street from the Grindle’s former home, where Kay was born and grew up in.
“That was really the initial project that we worked with the Ivester Foundation on,” Thomas said. “It was just the opportunity to celebrate Kay Ivester’s father, Earnest Ledford Grindle, and we just created that athletics park that currently has the softball field. It was just the first step on having our own facilities. We’ve had a good partnership with the city and county to utilize their facilities, but it was important to have our own facilities.”
Darby said the foundation agreed that with an impressive softball team, it needed an appropriate place to play.
“The first project we did at Brenau the softball field at New Holland,” Darby said. “The foundation does not take requests for funds, but because of Doug’s relationship, being on the Board [of Trustees], it came up they needed funds to build a softball field… for the very strong program there. It came to the foundation, we decided we would build the park.”
Darby said the foundation, along with Pacolet Milliken, which operates next door, worked together to make the park happen. The land, Darby said, is the original location of the school where Doug and Kay met.
“I think it’s a really world class operation for the division they’re in,” Darby said.
Thomas said the ball field had more potential, too. “We do have future plans to expand that out to have a field that would allow for lacrosse and soccer in addition to a track surrounding that.”
BRIGHTENING THE COMMUNITY
The Northeast Georgia History Center also bears an Ivester touch. Thomas said while the history center is a Brenau property, but the Ivester Foundation works with the History Center directly to maintain the Ada Mae Ivester Education Center. Donated in 2009 and named after Doug Ivester’s mother, the center serves as a place for their Living History programs, Family Days, forums, community events and others.
The Ivesters have made their mark elsewhere in Gainesville. The Ada Mae Pass Ivester Children’s Garden is expected to make its first bloom this spring at the Botanical Garden – Gainesville and will open to the public on March 21. The visitor’s center an amphitheater also bears the Ivester name.
GIVING TO THE NEXT GENERATION
The Ivesters personally have some projects they’re working on as well. In Downtown Gainesville, Bradford Street is like home, as Kay’s mother used to live there. Ivester said he wanted to get involved with the “kick start” of the Fourth Side of the Square and bring a meaningful revitalization to the area, by building condos, offices and retail space in the three story building that will match the look and feel of Downtown.
In a world where the American Dream is fading, changing and morphing into new things and ideas, it seems unfair to compare Ivester’s success to the potential of this new decade. The Ivesters have chosen to take their knowledge and funds and put it towards the things that matter back home. Their hope is not that high schoolers, nurses-in-training, athletes or playing children will not simply learn to work hard and therefore work well, but that they will get ahead by working hard.
“The core values I think I live by today all came from New Holland, all came from Gainesville. They were honed over the years by experiences, they were honed by learning from other people, the core values that I have today are no different than I had when I was 12 or 13 years old,” he said.