A New Home For Aggie Veterans
Don and Ellie Knauss consider education “the great equalizer,” and they believe military veterans are among those most deserving of the opportunities it offers. This conviction and their generous spirit inspired a $5 million gift that allowed the Veteran Resource & Support Center (VRSC) at Texas A&M University to expand into a renovated space.
About 150 special guests celebrated the opening of the Don & Ellie Knauss Veteran Resource and Support Center in a private gathering Monday, June 14 in the Memorial Student Center (MSC) on campus. The 10,000-square-foot space provides improved infrastructure for VRSC staff to provide support for the nearly 4,500 military affiliated students and their families, as well as a number of military-affiliated student organizations.
The center was designed with the overall goal of providing spaces for student veterans to study, share experiences and grow as students and leaders in their new college environment, and to help newly arriving student veterans adjust to college life.
In addition to the 17 office spaces for staff and student workers and a multi-purpose room for staff, the center boasts a meeting space with 85-inch monitors that double as digital white boards, an attached catering kitchen and a library study space that also houses an 85-inch white board monitor. Two open-access lab computers rest on programmable, adjustable height desks. There is a lounge that includes a third open-access lab computer and a stocked kitchen dedicated to student veteran needs.
The VRSC, which is part of the Division of Student Affairs, provides numerous specialized resources and programs for Texas A&M student veterans. Since its opening in 2012, veteran enrollment has more than doubled in size, with Texas A&M now home to more than 1,200 student veterans seeking both undergraduate and graduate degrees. The center’s 12 strategic programs proactively support these student veterans from “application to vocation” by focusing on academic, financial and personal well-being, as well as career success. In addition, the center provides support and resources to military dependents and spouses either enrolled or as family members of enrolled veterans, and provides space and advisory support for several military-affiliated student organizations.
Housed in the Memorial Student Center, the campus building dedicated to those who sacrificed their lives in service to our country, the VRSC is located at the end of the Hall of Honor, next to the MSC Veteran’s Lounge and the Student Veterans of America at Texas A&M University’s office, creating a home away from home for student veterans.
The center is also home to a special artwork collection by renowned Aggie artist Benjamin Knox ’90. When designing the space, the concept of artwork paying tribute to all of the military service branches and recognizing the service-to-civilian transition was something that staff felt was important. Desiring something custom and meaningful, the VRSC approached Knox, who jumped at the opportunity to honor our nation’s service men and women with this personal tribute.
His “Defenders of Freedom” series is displayed at the entrance to the VRSC. This series of seven paintings depicts notable and important aspects of each branch of the military, with the final painting focusing on the transition of service members from service through college and into civilian life and careers. The artwork contains several depictions of Aggies who have served – or are currently serving – in the military and NASA, as well as the Knausses.
Don and Ellie Knauss of Sugar Land, Texas, committed $5 million in January 2020 to support four areas within the VRSC. $2.5 million was dedicated to renovations for the new center; $1 million will be retained as a facility endowment for maintenance; and $1 million is directed to an excellence fund to provide funding for Texas A&M veteran programs.
Finally, the couple earmarked $500,000 as matching funds to encourage the creation of new veteran scholarships. During the past year, 18 donors took advantage of the match, resulting in 20 new endowed veteran scholarships. The Knausses had previously given more than $2 million toward 28 endowed student veteran scholarships.
Their initial connection to Aggieland is their eldest son and his wife, who both graduated from Texas A&M in 2010. But it is their belief in the power of education, authentic leadership, and their passion for the military that makes their relationship with Texas A&M and the VRSC a natural fit. Ellie’s father is a veteran, and Don served in the U.S. Marine Corps, earning the rank of captain.
“The veterans who are returning from serving our country to further their education come with experiences that are quite different from most of the students,” said Ellie Knauss. “These young men and women, who have committed their lives to the safety and security of the United States, deserve the most powerful step up we can provide for them. An education is the best way to ensure they have an opportunity to maximize their full potential.”
Don Knauss, who was chief executive officer of Clorox from 2006 to 2014, credits the strong leadership of Col. Gerald Smith, VRSC director, and his team as motivation behind the gift.
“When we saw the limitation in physical space in which veterans could gather and where this talented team does its work, we recognized an opportunity,” he said. “We want the VRSC to have the infrastructure needed to execute these life-changing programs and to grow in the future. We also believe it’s important that student veterans have a central, welcoming place to gather and connect with others who understand their challenges and are dedicated to their academic success.”
From P&G To Global Philanthropy
The namesakes of Texas A&M’s center for veterans have spent their lives learning lessons about human nature, leadership and purpose.
Born in Hammond, Indiana, Don Knauss graduated from Indiana University in 1977 with a degree in history. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines, serving in Oahu, Hawaii, with the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines as an artillery officer. Ellie Knauss grew up in the Midwest and attended Duke University. Her first job out of college was at Procter & Gamble (P&G), where she worked in sales management of paper and met Don, who left the Marines in 1981 to work in brand management of paper for P&G.
Don grew his career first with P&G and later with Frito-Lay, Tropicana, The Coca-Cola Company and Clorox. He holds key roles at three companies: Clorox Co. (director and chairman of the board), McKesson Corp. (independent director), URS Corp. (director) and Kellogg Co. (director).
He serves as chairman of the board at the University of San Diego and as a board member for the U.S. Marine Corps University Foundation and Morehouse College. A baseball enthusiast since the age of 5, he is responsible for renaming the Houston Astros’ stadium after Minute Maid and campaigning to keep the Oakland Athletics in Oakland.
As a 2006 recipient of the ROBIE Award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation, he often reflects on the epitaph inscribed on Robinson’s grave: “A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.” It has become a mantra that guides the philanthropy and service of both Don and Ellie Knauss.
“We may never achieve true equality, but we can create equality of opportunity,” he said. “If you’re in a leadership position, you can find ways to ensure that everyone has a fair and equitable playing field. Unless it can create wealth, there is no society on the planet that can take care of its most needy citizens, raise the standard of living, or make the investment necessary to preserve and protect the planet. That wealth must be created on a fair and equitable playing field. This is the inspiration behind our gifts to Texas A&M. We are trying to make the playing field fair and equitable so that every student veteran gets a fair shot to maximize the talent God gave them.”
Media contact: Ashley Drake, Don & Ellie Knauss Veteran Resource and Support Center, 979-845-3161, firstname.lastname@example.org