Campus News

A solid foundation — the remarkable influence of Bill Gatton's parents


LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 25, 2024) — Last spring, the late University of Kentucky alum and former trustee Carol Martin “Bill” Gatton bestowed a transformational gift of $100 million to the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE) through The Bill Gatton Foundation. The gift is the largest to the university in its nearly 160-year history, and is also believed to be the largest to a college of agriculture in the United States.

In the weeks following, the college was renamed as the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, to honor the parents of Bill Gatton — Edith Martin and Harry W. Gatton Sr.

The article below appeared in the Fall 2023 edition of Kentucky Alumni magazine, and describes Gatton's parents and the and profound influence they  had in shaping his career.


The renaming of the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment recognizes two of the most influential people in Bill Gatton’s life: his parents. While the story of Gatton’s business acumen and philanthropic mission has been well-documented, most people remain unaware of the profound influence his mother and father had in shaping his career.

In the early 19th century, the Gatton family — originally from neighboring Missouri — settled in a farming community midway between Bremen and Sacramento, Kentucky, along what is now State Route 81. For the entirety of his life, Bill remembered the perseverance and drive his parents — Harry Sr. and Edith Martin-Gatton — instilled in him at an early age.

“He often spoke about his father as being his hero because of the work ethic he had,” long-time family friend Mike Richey elaborated. “They were both hard-working, honest people. Very civic minded. They were just good people who believed in treating people fairly. They were successful financially, but it didn’t go to their heads. If there was a need in the community, they wanted to help be a part of giving to it. Bill saw how his father gave to many causes in the community, and that gave him the mindset that he needed to give back.”

Edith embraced the customary domestic responsibilities of the day. In a journal entry found after his death, Bill ruminated on the characteristics of both of his parents. For his mother, the concise entries include “good person,” “worked hard,” “belonged to the PTA and homemakers club,” “cooked excellent food” and “kept clean house.” She made time to sell dairy products — milk, buttermilk and homemade butter — to shops in nearby Central City, Kentucky.

Edith encouraged young Bill to live up to his effortless potential, suggesting that the gifted first grader read books well beyond his class level. As the child challenged himself academically, he discovered he was prodigious at both words and numbers.

With the examples set by his parents and unencumbered by the self-doubts that often impede aspirations, Bill developed a strong enterprising spirit, a solid head for business and an unquenchable fire to exceed expectations.

“My dad always expected me to win at anything I did,” he recalled in an interview about his business prowess. “It didn’t matter what it was, I was supposed to be a winner, and I’d do everything I could to please him by becoming a winner. So that’s how I got started very early on — I always wanted to win. It didn’t matter what it was.”

Edith died three days shy of her 49th birthday due to complications from an appendectomy.

“Mrs. Gatton said on her death bed, ‘Make sure that Bill’s given a quality education,’” said Richey. “He never forgot that — he never forgot. That’s one reason education was always at the top of his philanthropy. She spawned that.”

Bill, aged 10 and suddenly without one of the most significant influences in his young life, grew closer to his father and older brother Charles, who had returned to the family farm upon graduation from UK to assist in the day-to-day operation.

Under the watchful eye of his family, Bill supplemented his academic studies with practical knowledge learned on the farm. A budding entrepreneur, he sold produce that he grew to area businesses and at a stand he set up along Route 81.

At age 27, Bill asked his father for a $25,000 loan to buy a car dealership. He set his sights on selling Volkswagens in the Bluegrass. He originally hoped to open a GM dealership similar to where he had learned the trade, but soon realized the cost to open a VW franchise was one-tenth that of the Detroit manufacturer.

“Bill’s father was of the mind that Bill should be back on the farm, and he thought, ‘Well, it’ll be worth him losing this kind of money so that he comes back home,’” laughed Richey of the circumstances of the loan.

Harry Gatton Sr. died in 1966, aged 79.

Like his father, Bill never seriously considered slowing down.

“When he was 40 years of age, he could’ve comfortably retired, but then he got to 40 and said, ‘I’m going to work to 50,’” Richey explained. “He got to 50 and said, ‘I’m going to work until 60. When he reached 60, he said, ‘I’m never going to retire. I want to make more money so I can give it away.’ He liked making money but also enjoyed giving it away.”


A favorite poem of Bill Gatton, “The Bridge Builder,” by Will Allen Dromgoole, dates to the early 20th century.

The Bridge Builder

An old man going a lone highway,

Came at the evening, cold and gray,

To a chasm, vast, and deep and wide,

Through which was flowing a sullen tide.

The old man crossed in the twilight dim;

The sullen stream had no fear for him;

But he turned, when safe on the other side,

And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,

“You are wasting strength with building here;

Your journey will end with the ending day;

You never again will pass this way;

You never crossed the chasm, deep and wide-

Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head:

“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,

“There followeth after me today,

A youth, whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm, that has been naught to me,

To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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