The Hollingsworth Will: Furman's best-kept secret
"Furman, charities to share in Hollingsworth fortune."
The bold headline in the January 3, 2000 issue of the Greenville News shocked nearly everyone in the Furman community. John D. Hollingsworth, a reclusive textile magnate and real estate investor in Greenville who died at the age of 83, had left nearly half of his estate to Furman.
Estimates of the estate's value range from $100 million to $600 million. Furman's share (45 percent) has the potential to be one of the largest individual contributions in the history of higher education.
Hollingsworth, reputed to be the largest landholder in South Carolina, attended Furman for two years in the 1930s, but there was no public evidence to suggest that he had formed any bond with the school. In fact, no one connected directly to the university knew him intimately. It is unlikely that Hollingsworth ever attended a Furman Homecoming, and despite living just 20 minutes from the "new" campus, it's not clear whether he ever visited it.
However, he had a long history of supporting Furman. In the late 1970s he began making contributions to the Department of Economics and Business Administration - gifts that he insisted be kept confidential. By the time of his death, they had totaled about $1 million.
John E. Johns, who served as Furman's president from 1976 to 1994, said he was told shortly after his inauguration of Hollingsworth's intent to leave a large part of his estate to Furman. "I knew that it was going to be a very large gift, but that this was to be confidential," Johns says. "I was excited, of course, but put it out of my mind." A few months later, Johns was invited to tour Hollingsworth on Wheels, the textile company Hollingsworth inherited from his father and developed into one of the world's leading textile machinery manufacturers.
Johns met Hollingsworth in the plant's waiting room. "He had on these overalls with grease or oil on them. He had just come from the plant floor," says Johns. "We walked out on the floor and talked for a short while. We discussed the machinery. I was interested in that. I certainly did not talk about donations or the will. I was told not to mention that."
Johns was subsequently asked to speak to the Hollingsworth Funds Board of Directors, a non-profit board that Hollingsworth had established to oversee his charitable donations. Johns was later invited to serve on the board, as he continues to do so.
When David Shi succeeded Johns as Furman's president in 1994, he inherited Furman's best-kept secret. Like Johns, Shi was also invited to tour Hollingsworth on Wheels.
"My meeting with Mr. Hollingsworth was extremely brief," says Shi. "He was almost painfully shy. We barely made eye contact. Then one of his lieutenants took us on a tour of the facility."
Hollingsworth's well-guarded privacy and eccentric lifestyle fascinated and mystified those who knew him and those who didn't. In the late 1980s he was included on the Forbes magazine list of the world's 500 wealthiest people, yet he lived in a mobile home adjacent to his plant, worked 12 to 14 hours a day and wore the same outfit virtually every day - corduroy pants and a flannel shirt.
Although he was by all accounts devoted to his employees, Hollingsworth called few people friends. His insistence on privacy can, in part, be attributed to his desire to maintain closely held trade secrets in the intensely competitive textile industry.
According to provisions in the Hollingsworth will, 45 percent of the net income from his estate will be distributed annually to Furman. Greenville County charities would receive 45 percent and 10 percent would be donated to the Greenville County YMCA.
Furman has used a portion of the Hollingsworth bequest to establish the Hollingsworth Scholars program, an initiative that helps nearly 80 South Carolina residents attend Furman each year.