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The "Unlikely" Philanthropist


As one of eight children from a hard-working farm family in Cornelius, Martha Cooke Jenkins '77 (business) and '82 (engineering) never imagined she would grow up to be a philanthropist. With the help of a well-timed article and some savvy planning, that's exactly what she has become. Martha gave annually to UNC Charlotte, but she dreamed of assisting students in a much bigger way. She assumed such support was for families of significant wealth and well outside her reach. Though Martha and her husband Lawson both had good jobs as engineers, they were working to support their young family.

Things changed for Martha in 1995 when she read an article about a donation that captured national attention. The donation was from Oseola McCarty who had worked over 75 years doing laundry for other families. She had lived very frugally, saved everything she could, and at age 87, decided to give her savings-$150,000-to the University of Southern Mississippi. Martha clipped the article and posted it to her bulletin board at work. Thanks to that article, Martha realized that anyone could be a philanthropist, not just those of extraordinary means.

Martha knew her opportunity had finally arrived when her family sold their farm in 2008. Money in hand, Martha was ready to make a contribution. She had previously learned that her employer, Ingersoll Rand, and Lawson's employer, Duke Energy, had generous matching gift programs. Martha just needed to decide how to direct her support.

Martha thought back to her formative UNC Charlotte experience for inspiration. While earning her business degree at UNC Charlotte, Martha worked at the Ralston Purina dealership part time. Upon graduation, she applied for a position as a production manager. Impressed with Martha's work, Ralston Purina gave her the job on one condition; she had to obtain her engineering degree.

Over the next five-and-a-half years, Martha worked full time and attended classes three nights a week to complete the rigorous coursework for a mechanical engineering degree. She was one of four UNC Charlotte students-and the only female-pursuing that challenging degree while working full time.

Throughout that time Professor Charles "Chuck" Mobley was a continual source of inspiration. He encouraged Martha and the other students to study and work hard. Though dependent on crutches due to a childhood illness, he never complained. Nor did he allow that to define or impede him. His example encouraged students to remain dedicated to their studies despite life obstacles.

Given Professor Mobley's positive influence on Martha and countless others, she decided to establish a scholarship in his honor in the Department of Engineering Technology at UNC Charlotte's William States Lee College of Engineering. Martha has been adding to her scholarship every year since.

Fast forward to today and Martha is still dreaming of ways to help UNC Charlotte students. This time, she wishes to honor two key women in her life who opened doors and set great examples for her. Though retired, she and Lawson can continue to leverage their giving through Duke Energy's matching gift program, which includes retirees. The dreams of this "unlikely" philanthropist are being fulfilled in ways she never imagined and both students and the University have benefited greatly.

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