Table of Contents
Waggoner Named Lifetime Member of Development Board
J. Virgil Waggoner and wife June have made significant contributions to UT Health Science Center at Houston
From humble beginnings in a small Arkansas town, J. Virgil Waggoner rose to become very successful in Houston's petrochemical business, a legend who co-founded Sterling Chemicals.
But he has never left his small-town roots far behind. He still gets a lump in his throat when he talks about his father and grandfather and the grocery/feed store they ran in Judsonia, Ark., population 1,200.
"I have achieved so much," says Waggoner, who was recently named the ninth Lifetime Development Board Member in the 35-year history of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "My father was a lot like my grandfather: frugal, very honest and very straight-forward. I grew up in that environment and it's just been great."
In announcing the lifetime board membership, James T. Willerson, M.D., president of the university, cited Waggoner's leadership, contributions and service along with "your ability to boost the morale and spirits of everyone around you."
Waggoner, who with wife June Waggoner established the Waggoners Foundation in 1993, likes to quote a great British leader when asked about his philosophy of giving: "Winston Churchill said you make a living by what you earn but you make a life by what you give."
The couple and their foundation have made significant contributions to the UT Health Science Center, including a gift for the New Frontiers Campaign for the Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), and generous gifts to the School of Nursing and Student Community Center building and to the Nancy B. Willerson Professorship in Nursing.
The Waggoners have chosen issues close to their hearts: health, science and the homeless as the major benefactors of their generosity.
They both have very fond memories of their early life together. They met in their first year at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. Virgil, just 16 when he started college, was following in the footsteps of his two older sisters, although he thought he might transfer to another university after a couple of years. "My first week there was my first date with June and I wasn't about to transfer to another school after that," Virgil says. "I saw a young lady from my hometown walking with a pretty young woman and I asked her to introduce us and she did. I hardly shut up until I asked her for a date."
June remembers Virgil as "the most versatile boy on campus." He was a member of the basketball team, the president of his fraternity and a member of the ROTC. Like Virgil, June was just 16 when she started college. An aunt had attended Ouachita and it was close to home, which was comforting for June's mother. June lost her father to an oilfield accident when she was young.
The couple married the summer before they moved to Austin for graduate school for Virgil at The University of Texas at Austin. He earned $100 a month as a graduate teaching assistant and June went to work for two attorneys. They rented the downstairs area of a home and had to share a bathroom with the homeowner and her son.
After he graduated with a master's degree in organic chemistry and mathematics, Virgil took a job with Monsanto Company in Texas City, earning $3,900 a year. June taught ninth-grade science until their daughter Liz Waggoner Quisenberry was born. Son Jay Waggoner was born a few years later.
In 1980, Virgil retired as group vice-president at Monsanto and then became president of El Paso Products Company. In 1986, he teamed up with another gifted entrepreneur, Gordon Cain, to purchase the Monsanto plant and form Sterling Chemicals. The duo set up the company on a profit-sharing plan with employees.
"Over the 10 years I was there, 250 to 300 kids got to go to college with money their parents saved from the good years," Virgil says. "To me, that was the greatest thing."
For his professional and personal achievements, Waggoner received the Petrochemical Heritage Award from the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2006.
The couple talks of how blessed they are, but their life has not been without tragedy. In 1998, they lost their son Jay, 36, to severe alcoholism. Virgil called it the saddest day of his life.
He was such a ‘golden boy' and they wanted to do something to ensure that, through his legacy, others could benefit. They made the decision to establish the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin, to raise awareness of alcoholism, in their son's honor. "Years ago we didn't talk about AIDS or cancer and no one wants to talk about alcoholism but it's more prevalent than those other things. We want to let people know that it's there and it's a disease."
The Waggoner Center research, headed by director R. Adron Harris, Ph.D., includes looking for genetic links to alcoholism. Researchers are trying to find ways to block alcohol's impact on proteins in the brain and map genes to help determine the best course of treatment for an alcoholic.
The Waggoners also established the Waggoners Foundation Speaker Series for the Houston Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, which has brought in speakers including the late Ann Richardson, Red McCombs, Richard Dreyfuss, Larry Gatlin and Judy Collins. During the eight years since the speaker series began, hotline calls to the center have risen from 87,000 a year to more than 300,000 a year. June is an honorary lifetime member of the board of the council.
"If you asked everyone in a room if they had a family member who had problems with alcohol, I think almost everyone would raise their hands," says June. "We want to help erase the stigma."
In 2004, the couple established the June Waggoner House of Hope Day Care Center for children of parents living at the Star of Hope Mission. In 2005, June, who also is a director of the Foundation for Teen Health, was named a Woman of Distinction by ABC Channel 13.
Virgil Waggoner has a little advice for others interested in giving: "It should be something you're passionate about. You should stop and think and decide what's important to you and your family. It should be your passion, your love."
By Deborah Mann Lake, Institutional Advancement
Previous story Next story