Springfield businessman Bobby Allison is quietly cementing a giving legacy in the area. But he’ll tell you he’d rather not have the recognition that accompanies such a reputation.
In the past month, three new facilities bearing his name – and his mother’s – were dedicated at Missouri State University: the Betty and Bobby Allison North and South stadiums and the Betty and Bobby Allison Sand Volleyball Complex. In fact, the names are becoming as popular around campus as MSU’s most-publicized donor, the late John Q. Hammons. There’s also the Betty and Bobby Allison Courts at the Foster recreation center and the Betty and Bobby Allison Recreation Fields off of National Avenue.
MSU Foundation Executive Director Brent Dunn said Allison isn’t a university graduate. The 30-year sales manager at Springfield animal feed distributor Custom Protein Corp. simply wants to support facilities and projects that serve children and young adults.
“He doesn’t do interviews. He’s a very modest man and doesn’t seek attention for himself, by any means,” Dunn said of Allison, who has donated at least $1.5 million to the school but generally stays away from dedications of facilities bearing his name. “He came to one of them but was in the background.”
Allison’s philanthropy extends beyond the MSU campus. He’s donated millions of dollars to youth projects at Mercy Hospital Springfield, the Springfield-Greene County Park Board and Twin Oaks Country Club. He contributed $125,000 to the Park Board for the development of the Betty and Bobby Allison Miracle League Field, which served 125 physically and mentally disabled players and teammates this spring. He’s also given $200,000 for the Westport K-8 school playground and another $50,000 for the Hailey Owens’ memorial playground at Westport Park.
Jenny Fillmer Edwards, public information administrator for the Park Board, said Allison played a key role in the $1.5 million renovation of its par 3 north-side course, in the mid-2000s, now known as the Betty Allison Golf Course at Oscar Blom. Allison also has helped pay for Betty’s Playhouse, a golf-themed playground at the public Rivercut Golf Course.
Dunn said he got to know Allison through golf circles at Twin Oaks Country Club and Allison’s support of the youth program there – Dunn’s son played regularly – but it was through the Bill R. Foster and Fami Recreation Center that Allison decided to become a supporter of university facilities.
After several conversations related to recreational programs and touring the construction site, Allison decided to donate $500,000 to three basketball courts and the development of the recreation field. Dunn said Allison was particularly interested in promoting the Bears brand through signage, because he thought that would get current and prospective students excited about the facilities.
“He loved the Bear head and the branding of our campus, and that really started with that field,” Dunn said.
With the new stadiums and volleyball complex, student fees cover the bulk of the costs. But Dunn said when private donations were needed to cap off the projects, Allison was a go-to guy.
“He just cares about children and youth. That’s his philanthropic passion,” Dunn said.
Jean Gruetzemacher, vice president of philanthropy for Mercy Health Foundation Springfield, said the plainspoken Allison quickly jumped on board to donate for a new neonatal intensive care unit.
After touring the Springfield hospital and learning about plans for Mercy Children’s Hospital, he committed to a $2 million gift for the NICU. He followed that up with another $650,000 to support a second phase of the project, she said. When complete in November, the Betty and Bobby Allison Neonatal Intensive Care Unit will have 44 private rooms and two observation rooms.
“At first, he said, ‘I don’t want to see any sick babies,’” Gruetzemacher said. “But then he was in awe.”
The 25-year-old NICU at Mercy had babies in one big room, with the infants only feet away from each other before Allison became involved. Gruetzemacher described the unit as noisy and congested, with alarms frequently sounding, and likely was emotionally draining for parents.
Connected through a friend who knew of Mercy’s need for private rooms, Gruetzemacher said Allison wanted to help. She said he is largely driven by a deep respect for his late mother.
“She was a single mother. She worked three jobs all his life and sacrificed a lot,” Gruetzemacher said.
True to form, Allison declined a sit-down interview with Springfield Business Journal.
Contacted over the phone at his Custom Protein office – on a sprawling 58 acres north of Hillcrest High School – Allison only addressed questions regarding his mother, who died in 2002, and the area youth he supports.
“If it wasn’t for the thrill I get from seeing my name and hers together, my name wouldn’t be on anything,” he said.
Allison, who isn’t married and has no children, said he doesn’t do interviews because they remind him of how boring he is. He doesn’t consider himself wealthy and declined to say how much he’s committed to local projects.
“I haven’t accumulated it, as you’ve noticed. I’ve given it away. I’ve had some luck with some other projects besides Custom Protein,” said Allison, who has a penchant for wearing overalls and this summer earned MSU’s Founders Medallion for contributions exceeding $1 million. “I’ve been involved in a little real estate, a little stock, this and that.”
In July, Allison established the Robert M. Allison Fund with Community Foundation of the Ozarks to assist his personal giving.
As to investing, Allison was a backer of Springfield home furnishings distributor GuildMaster Inc./Decorize Inc. According to GuildMaster’s bankruptcy filings in December 2012, Allison, the Robert M. Allison Trust and an individual retirement account managed by Trust Company of the Ozarks were listed as equity security holders to the tune of some 576,000 shares in the company.
He also has participated in the Invest to Invest fundraiser for Boys & Girls Clubs, in which seasoned investors donate the returns on individual stocks after making a $1,000 investment and tracking the progress for a year.
Before hanging up the phone, Allison hinted there could be more projects coming down the pike.
“I’m not through, I don’t think,” he said. “I don’t have any of my own kids to spoil, so I spend money on everybody else’s.”