Modest Man Leaves Behind $50M For Danville Community

October 14, 2007

A man who lived a modest life has left behind a surprising legacy, a $50 million trust that will provide educational scholarships and charitable grants to a community that barely knew him.

"To look at him, you wouldn't think he was worth a penny," Liz Atkins said of her great-uncle, James Thomas "J.T." Emerson, who died June 14, 2005.

The J.T.-Minnie Maude Charitable Trust will provide higher educational opportunities through financial assistance to deserving and needy students, and will assist the residents of Danville/Pittsylvania County through grants to charitable organizations.

Emerson's gift is a reflection of his life, full of love, generosity and a desire to help the young members of his family achieve the "ability to compete" through education, Atkins said.

Emerson was born in Schoolfield on Oct. 6, 1922, to Lawson Benjamin Emerson and Minnie Maude Owen Emerson, the third of eight children. The family later moved to a farm in Caswell County, N.C., where they raised tobacco.

His mother taught her children to work hard and told them if you "take care of your pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves."

Emerson apparently took his mother's advice to heart. He began his career at an electric shop, where he earned $8 for a 60-hour week. After high school, he joined the Air Force, trained as an electrician and served at the Marianna, Fla., flight training school during World War II.

He later attended Danville Community College and then went to the University of Alabama and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in 1951.

The stock market piqued his interest in the late 1950s and he conducted extensive research into stocks rather than relying on others' advice. His strategy paid off, his investments were consistently successful.

"No one (in the community) knows who he was," she said. "But he is making a wonderful contribution to this area."

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