TTU Dedicates Ag Pavilion Sales Arena to Million-Dollar Donor

You can't take it with you. Robert Harrison Sr. knows this, so he's leaving it behind where he thinks it can do the most good.

"It," in this case, is Harrison's $1-million life insurance policy, which he has donated to Tennessee Tech's School of Agriculture. In recognition, the university dedicated the Robert Harrison Sr. Sales Arena at the W. Clyde Hyder-Tommy Burks Agricultural Pavilion during last week's Homecoming festivities.

The Sales Arena covers 6,000 square feet and seats 403 people. With 133 pens and stalls as well as a demonstration area, the Sales Arena complements the larger, 2,450-seat show arena. It was designed to accommodate a wide variety of events, including 4-H and FFA activities and cattle sales, as well as academic and laboratory classes.

"This great facility has already received regional and national acclaim for its beauty and multifunctional capabilities," said Ben Byler, director of the School of Agriculture at Tennessee Tech.

During the past fiscal year, about 43,000 people visited the Agricultural Pavilion for the 80 different events that took place there. Some 9,000 more have already taken advantage of offerings at the pavilion this year.

"Naming this Sales Arena for Bob is our way of recognizing his outstanding achievements and showing our appreciation for his gifts, which came with such good cheer and enthusiasm," said President Volpe at the dedication ceremony. "The impact of his support of current and future students will be felt for years to come."

Leave it to a savvy investor to find an affordable way to give back to his alma mater what he feels it deserves. Harrison has made his career as a personal financial planner for Investor's Diversified Service Inc. (IDS -- now American Express Financial Advisors). Although his degree from Tennessee Tech prepared him for a future in agribusiness, Harrison says he just wasn't satisfied being in a field hit so hard by an unfavorable economic climate. He felt he had a talent for sales, and when IDS came calling, he jumped at the opportunity. Moving from agribusiness to finance might have been a big jump, but Harrison says he was ready.

"Getting my degree at Tennessee Tech was a very valuable effort," he says. "To an employer, it's not so much what you're educated in, but rather, staying the course and getting your education. That tells an employer that you're going to be worth training."

At the Albertville, Ala., institution, Harrison proved himself quickly. He was inducted into the IDS Hall of Fame after only nine years, breaking a company record. His resume boasts honors that include the Mercury Award, Top District Producer, Leading Planner in the Southeast and membership in the Master Millionaire Club and the Top National Leader Group.

All this from a man who admits he almost didn't get his degree at all. Anxious to move on, Harrison planned to finish his undergraduate work at another university. One of his teachers, Larry Click, an associate professor in the School of Agriculture, encouraged Harrison to finish his degree at Tennessee Tech instead -- to finish what he'd started.

"He made me get out of bed and go to class. He made it clear that I was going to graduate, whether I wanted to or not!" Harrison, 48, received a bachelor's degree in agricultural science in 1972 -- the first student, in fact, to graduate under the new program.

Click recalls Harrison as an intelligent and hard-working student who needed only a little push. He says he's not surprised that Harrison chose a career in finance -- or that Harrison has already achieved great success in that field.

"He's one of those people who can do almost anything if it involves dealing with people," says Click. But he does admit to being surprised by the size of Harrison's contribution to the School of Agriculture. "It's just wonderful. I never know where that kind of generosity comes from. It's inside people, and you can't always read it."

Harrison thanks Tennessee Tech for the success he now enjoys. "Today, I'm an educated person with the ability to make a good living." He cites former professors Clyde Hyder and Bob Parham, both retired now, as two others who were instrumental in his succeeding in school.

A native of Loudon, Tenn., Harrison is the son of Dr. William and Mrs. Nell Harrison. After enlisting in the Navy and serving in Vietnam, Harrison came to Tennessee Tech in 1970. As a student, he was also a member of the Delta Tau Alpha Agricultural Honor Society. Harrison and his wife, Margaret, live in Albertville, Ala. They have one son, Robert Jr.

"The university has received other life insurance policies as donations, but never one of this magnitude," says Tom Hamilton, director of University Development and Alumni Relations. "A gift of this nature will greatly impact the School of Agriculture's ability to continue providing excellent programs."

In 1994, Harrison gave a $60,000 pledge to Tennessee Tech's "Sharing the Vision" Capital Campaign, establishing the Robert and Margaret Harrison Scholarship Endowment. The endowment will ultimately fund enough scholarships to put at least four or five students through school every semester. "It's set up for juniors and seniors as an incentive to get through the first two years so they can get serious about what they're doing," said Harrison.

"Supporting the university is an obligation -- in a positive sense," Harrison said at the time of the 1994 donation. "Without Tennessee Tech and the education I received there, I would not be in a position financially to participate in the capital campaign."