Philanthropic Pair Support a Compassionate Community
Butterfield couple Jim and Nancy Blair are building a legacy for the community, generously supporting key quality-of-life assets in the region, including the world-class Fayetteville Public Library and the University of Arkansas’ flagship campus in Fayetteville.
Jim Blair, former general counsel of Tyson Foods Inc., and his wife Nancy have been lending their support to charities, arts organizations and healthcare services in Northwest Arkansas for over 20 years.
The couple’s charitable gifts total more $15 million in the region, including $1.8 million to nonprofit Life Styles Inc.; $2 million to the Museum of Native American History in the form of a Pre-Columbian art collection; $100,000 to TheatreSquared for an assistive hearing sound system; $100,000 to Washington Regional Medical Center for its hospice program and building expansion, and countless other smaller projects.
They administer the James Burton Blair Family Foundation, which gives $100,000 annually to support organizations such as the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Northwest Arkansas, KUAF 91.3 FM – National Public Radio, the Washington Regional Medical Foundation, TheatreSquared, and the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (SoNA).
They are also establishing a new scholarship program to assist young women in rural parts of the state.
The couple’s most significant support, however, has been to the Fayetteville Public Library, a beloved institution. Voted one of the finest libraries in nation, the community facility is known for excellence, access to learning and environmental sustainability.
Jim Blair, a Fayetteville native, graduate of Fayetteville High School and alumnus of University of Arkansas and UA School of Law, knows firsthand how libraries can change young lives.
As a youth raised by his paternal grandparents, Jim Blair regularly climbed three flights of steep steps to the old public library over City Hall as soon as he was old enough. He’d leave each visit with a cardboard boxful of books, setting in motion a lifelong quest for knowledge and learning, and putting young Jimmie on the fast-track to becoming a voracious reader.
“The Fayetteville Public Library is definitely near and dear to our hearts,” Nancy Blair said. “It’s our No. 1 priority in a large part because it reaches so many people and offers so much to the greater community. Jim and I strongly support community because it gives us something beyond ourselves. A compassionate community is something that sustains us all.”
HUNGRY FOR LEARNING
James Burton Blair was born in 1935 in Elkins, Ark. but grew up in Fayetteville. Grandparents Rufus and Bessie Motley Blair ran a grocery store from their home in a converted brick annex on South School Avenue, along the old U.S. 62 truck route downtown.
Bessie Blair, a schoolteacher, was especially close to her grandson and taught him to read well before he began attending school. Soon, as a youth, he was regularly crossing busy U.S. 62, looking for adventure. Instead, he found an insatiable, lifelong thirst for knowledge and reading in the boxfuls of books from the old public library.
“My grandmother was 55 when she took me in, and she would read with me in her lap,” Jim Blair said. “I could read at age 3 and was reading by the time school started. I’d take the cardboard box to the library and had an agreement with the librarian that could fill it up with books as long as I returned them. I firmly believe the early access I had to books and the library helped me develop a profound knowledge base that I draw from today – and was responsible for the academic and professional successes I’ve had.”
In 1953, Jim Blair graduated from Fayetteville High School with honors and 46 hours of early college credit. At the University of Arkansas, he earned bachelor’s degree with minors in English and in philosophy by age 19, followed by his Juris Doctor from the law school two years later.
His first attorney’s job was with the late Courtney Crouch, whose clients included Jones Truck Lines and Tyson Foods Inc. The pair took Tyson Foods public and handled a number of its early acquisitions. At age 23, Jim Blair won a case before the Arkansas Supreme Court that changed the libel law in Arkansas.
In 1980, Governor Bill Clinton appointed Jim Blair as a National Democratic Committeeman, and he later served as private legal counsel to President Clinton when Clinton was in the White House. Jim Blair and his late wife, Diane D. Blair, were close friends to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
From 1980-2000, Jim Blair served as general counsel for Tyson Foods, during which time he volunteered on a number of boards and committees. His service included the Arkansas State Board of Higher Education and the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, both which he chaired.
In 1995, he received the Chancellor’s Medal at the University of Arkansas. In 2004, he was inducted into the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation’s Hall of Honor. He received the UA Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008. In 2005, Jim Blair was named Outstanding Northwest Arkansas Philanthropist.
“I look back on my life and it’s clear that Fayetteville and this community helped me a great deal along the way at many stages in my life,” Jim Blair said. “Giving back to others is one of the most meaningful things we can do in life. So naturally, I want to give back to the community that helped me get to where I am today.”
BUILDING A LEGACY
Jim Blair retired from Tyson Foods in 2000. After losing Diane Blair in June of the same year, he felt he was being called more deeply into his mission than ever. He devoted the next five years to aggressive philanthropy.
He worked to establish the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics & Society at the U of A in honor of his late wife, a lauded UA political science professor and advocate for women in the state. He also gave $1.5 million to endow two assistant professorships at the Blair Center — one in Southern studies and one in Latino politics — which operate in perpetuity.
He supported his alma mater in a number of other ways, too, by gifting the Bessie Motley Blair Room at UA’s Old Main and the commons area at the School of Law, both in honor of the grandmother who raised him. He also established funds for the philosophy department and political science department library.
In 2002, he donated $3 million to build a new Fayetteville Public Library – the city’s first in over 60 years. The $23.3 million, 88,000-square-foot Blair Library opened in 2004 and garnered coveted awards and recognition, including national Library of Year in 2005 and status as Arkansas’ first library with U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental (LEED) certification.
Situated at the corner of Mountain Street and South School Avenue, off the downtown square, the Blair Library serves 500,000+ visitors each year. It’s located two blocks from where Jim Blair was raised by his grandparents.
GIFTS THAT KEEP GIVING
In 2005, Jim married Nancy Beth Horton, a native of Marshall, Ark., who moved to Northwest Arkansas in 1992. Prior to their marriage, Nancy Blair enjoyed a 12-year career as an executive assistant in the executive wing at Tyson Foods.
One of the couple’s first major gifts was the 2009 donation of the Blair Law Firm offices to Life Styles Inc. The $1.8 million law offices were already outfitted with art gallery space (the Blairs are art lovers and collectors), making it a perfect fit for the Life Styles art program.
Today, the Blair Center in Springdale houses Life Styles’ administrative offices and its pioneering art program, featuring an incredible gallery and airy studio space for its client artists. The couple owns a number of paintings by Life Styles artists, proudly displayed in their Village Home.
In 2019, the Blairs donated an additional $2 million to Fayetteville Public Library, for its Beyond Words expansion project. Complete in 2021, the new addition now offers an innovative mix of world-class amenities to the Blair Library, including the new FPL Event Space, the Center of Innovation, a teaching kitchen, a new children’s library, and the outdoor Gathering Glade.
Since moving to BTV in August 2020, the Blairs’ work supporting libraries has not slowed. They are currently donating their extensive personal home library — all 8,000 volumes of it — to the Elkins Public Library. The collection of books and materials reaches back 60 years into Jim Blair’s lifetime of voracious reading, covering art, literature, history, law, economics, geography and many other subjects.
In addition, they are working to establish the Nancy Beth Horton Blair Scholarship, which will be geared toward students in rural part of the state who want to attend the University of Arkansas.
“Preference will be given to students at Marshall High School, where I graduated from, in particular to young women,” Nancy Blair said. “When you’re from a small, rural high school, attending the university can feel intimidating and seem out of reach. I think it’s important that all students have an opportunity to learn in an educational setting beyond their hometown. This scholarship will make a difference in doing that.