Tama County native pledges $25 million to UNI, largest in school history

Gift establishes in part Wilson Scholars Fund for Tama Co. students

Traer native David Wilson, a 1966 North Tama High School graduate, pledged $25 million to the University of Northern Iowa during a ceremony held last Friday in Cedar Falls. Wilson’s donation – which will, in part, establish a scholarship fund for up to four graduates of Tama County high schools – is the largest single gift in the history of the school. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN IOWA

CEDAR FALLS – A historic gift to the University of Northern Iowa will mark a new chapter in the university’s renowned business college. David Wilson, a 1966 graduate of North Tama High School and 1970 graduate of UNI who now lives in the state of Nevada, has pledged a $25 million donation that will chart a bold path for the future of the College of Business, fueling strategic initiatives and investing in faculty and students. The $25 million donation is the largest single gift in the history of the University of Northern Iowa.

In honor of the gift, the business college, upon Board of Regents approval, will henceforth be known as the David W. Wilson College of Business, the first named college at the University of Northern Iowa. The contribution establishes the Wilson Endowment for Integrity and Excellence to advance business ethics education and ensure graduates continue to thrive and lead in a rapidly changing business landscape.

“This gift to UNI is made in the hope that this money will transform the university; transform the College of Business,” Wilson said. “I’m hoping this gift will ensure students will learn to do things the right way.”

“This is a historic moment for our campus. The Wilson College of Business will truly transform business education at UNI, taking our already premier business programs to new heights,” said UNI President Mark Nook. “We’re honored that UNI’s first named college will stand as a testament to David’s belief in the power of education and will provide resources for the university to foster innovation for the future.”

Leslie Wilson, dean of the College of Business, said the $25 million gift symbolizes a new chapter for the college, building on its long tradition of excellence. “Current and future business leaders need to be equipped to confront the complexities of a domestic and global economy. They need the critical thinking skills that allow them to live their values and lead with integrity,” she said. “The David W. Wilson College of Business will elevate ethics and integrity as a core component of who we are: through our mission, our curriculum and our brand.”

A portion of the gift also establishes the Wilson Scholars Fund which will be used to provide full ride scholarship support to students who graduate from a high school in Tama County – including Wilson’s alma mater North Tama High School – and demonstrate financial need. The first Wilson Scholar will be awarded in the 2024-2025 academic year with the intent that eventually four Wilson Scholars will be funded annually.

“Traer was a great place to grow up,” Wilson told Tama-Grundy Publishing last week ahead of the formal announcement which took place at UNI on Friday, Oct. 20. “You could know everybody and everybody knew you. … Life in a small town was wonderful – I have a very fond spot for [Traer].”

Wilson worked with the UNI Foundation to structure his contribution as a challenge gift in the hopes of spurring additional support for the university’s Our Tomorrow campaign.

“It’s exciting to be part of more than 27,000 alumni and friends who have said yes to this campaign,” he said.

This most recent contribution expands on Wilson’s previous support that created the Wilson Chair in Business Ethics in 1999. For the past two decades, the faculty position has educated students about ethics and served as a resource on the topic for the community. The Wilson Chair will play an important role in the vision for the Wilson College of Business.

David Wilson biography

David W. Wilson considers his story to be emblematic of the American Dream. Through sheer determination and a belief in doing business the right way, he rose from a small-town Iowa kid with a lower middle class background to become chairman and CEO of Wilson Automotive, one of the country’s largest privately held auto dealerships.

As the eldest of five children, Wilson’s first exposure to entrepreneurship came as a paperboy delivering the Des Moines Register and Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in his home town of Traer. His father, the late Logan West Wilson was a former rodeo cowboy who worked as a machinist for John Deere and his mother, Dinsdale native Elaine (née Johnson) Wilson also worked full-time. Eventually the Wilsons moved to a farm outside of Traer, where David supported his family in raising horses and performing other chores.

While neither of his parents attended college, it was always expected that Wilson and his siblings would further their education beyond high school. With his mother arranging to cover the first year of his schooling, Wilson worked a series of blue-collar jobs – lathe operator and night mechanic among them – to finance the remainder of his education at UNI. By his senior year, he was selling cars at a local dealership.

A degree from UNI offered David a well-rounded education. Through courses in logic, ethics and philosophy, he would learn the critical thinking skills that helped make him successful in business. He would graduate in 1970 with a degree in philosophy and a minor in business.

Following graduation, Wilson and his budding family including his wife Holly Wilson moved to Arizona. As the family’s Lincoln limped into a Phoenix-area dealership, Wilson made a decision that would change his life. When he learned the vehicle repairs wouldn’t be covered under warranty, Wilson persuaded the manager to make him a salesman so that he could get an employee discount on the service. Within five years he would own a 25% stake in the business, ultimately leveraging the partnership to launch his own dealerships throughout the southwest United States and parts of Mexico.

Wilson Automotive now comprises 18 automotive dealerships and related companies, employing more than 2,500 people. Sales for these corporations total more than $3 billion in annual sales, making Wilson Automotive one of the largest dealership groups in the nation.

Over his career, Wilson has earned many honors for his business and philanthropic leadership. Chief among them was his induction in 2005 into the Horatio Alger Association, an organization that celebrates “the achievements of outstanding leaders who have accomplished remarkable successes in spite of adversity.” With that honor, he joined a diverse membership that includes Ronald Reagan, Maya Angelou, Buzz Aldrin and Clarence Thomas, who would don Wilson with the medal signifying his membership.

“I believe with success comes increased responsibility,” he told an interviewer at the time. It’s a philosophy that has defined his career. In an industry commonly associated with unscrupulous business practices, Wilson strove to “do well by doing good.”

While speaking to Tama-Grundy Publishing last week, Wilson was asked to ponder the enormity of his gift to which he responded, in part: “I’ve become very wealthy by doing good. … I’m going to run out of time before I run out of money.

“The way I was raised you need to plant in the spring if you’re going to reap in the fall.”