Life, legacy of Lied Foundation’s Hixson is an inspiration

This past Thursday, a groundbreaking ceremony was staged on the south side of Kansas University’s Lied Center to mark the start of construction for a new education pavilion and an expansion of the center’s lobby area.

Christina Hixson, the sole trustee of the Lied Foundation Trust, gave $2.5 million for the project, with the William T. Kemper Foundation, administered by Commerce Bank, contributing $300,000.

This is the latest gift to KU provided by Hixson and brings her total giving to KU to more than $24 million.

In addition to these gifts, the Clarinda, Iowa, native, through the Lied trust, has given more than $300 million to projects and programs in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, California and Washington.

Hixson has provided funds for 10 Hixson Opportunity Awards each year, worth $5,000 per year, for entering Kansas freshmen and a biomedical research building and atrium at the KU Medical Center.

The story of Chris Hixson should be an inspiration to many.

She grew up in a large family of very modest means. She graduated from Clarinda High School and borrowed money to attend one semester of classes at a nearby business college in Omaha.

When Hixson was 17, and after she learned shorthand, Ernst Lied hired her to work for him in Omaha. Lied was a successful automobile dealer, and by the time he sold his business and moved to Las Vegas, his Buick dealership was ranked third in the nation.

When he headed west he took Chris with him, giving her increased responsibilities in various new businesses such as a 100-unit motel, apartment buildings and other properties. Although she didn’t carry any official titles, she assumed the responsibilities of a business manager or general manager for Lied’s various business entities.

This started in 1958, when Las Vegas was a city of approximately 70,000. Today’s population is about 550,000.

Lied had gone to Las Vegas to buy real estate because he thought the city would grow, particularly to the northwest. By the time he died in 1980, the Lied operation owned more than 1,000 acres of prime Las Vegas real estate plus other businesses.

Shortly after his death, his estate was valued at more than $100 million, and Hixson was the sole trustee.

She did not have any formal training, only one semester at business college. She liked mathematics and business-related courses, but aside from this, it was a case of Hixson using common sense, treating people fairly and being extremely careful with the money in the Lied foundation, which was formed eight years before Lied died.

She soon became known as a shrewd business person, not allowing herself to be shortchanged by those eager to buy some of her properties at prices below the current market value.

Because of her own background and the importance she placed on education, she started a remarkable program of generous giving to a wide range of projects. Perhaps early in her philanthropic career, some of those eager to be recipients of her generosity may have thought they could make most any kind of proposal and she would come through with some dollars. They soon learned she was a sharp, tough negotiator.

In many cases, she would provide funding only if those seeking the money would agree to provide a certain amount of cash themselves. Her reasoning was that if those asking for money didn’t have a strong enough conviction on the importance of the project to put in their own money or raise sufficient funds from other sources, she didn’t believe the project deserved her support.

In the early years of funding, Hixson helped finance many buildings such as performance centers at KU and the University of Nebraska, the world’s largest indoor tropical rain forest at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, several buildings at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, a conference center at Nebraska City, a community center at Clarinda, Iowa, a school building and many other education-related facilities.

Later, she started funding programs that made it possible for talented young men and women to obtain a college education. These were high school graduates who, for one reason or another, would not likely have been able to attend a university.

In 1995, she started a program at Iowa State University called the Chris Hixson Opportunity Awards. She provided one $2,500 scholarship to be given to a student from each of Iowa’s 99 counties, plus two from Polk County (Des Moines). A new class of recipients is selected each year. If the students maintain their grades, the scholarships continue until graduation.

ISU officials suggested to Hixson that the scholarships should include criteria for community service, but Hixson said, “no.” She said the type of students she hoped to reach are those who may be working to support their families or take care of siblings.

“I have a feeling,” she said, “that those kids are going to be more giving kids to society if we can give them the education and basics for them to contribute. I think these are the ones who are going to lend a helping hand in the future.”

The ISU announcement about the awards said they were “for Iowa high school seniors who otherwise might not have an opportunity to attend college.”

This also is the basis for the $5,000 Hixson Opportunity Awards for incoming KU students. Hixson receives many thanks for her large and varied financial support, but she says, “I really don’t give gifts but I do offer an opportunity.”

She says, “people are what make the difference” in her decisions for the foundation and she sees foundation-supported projects as “undertakings that touch the lives of people of Nebraska and the Midlands.”

As noted earlier, Hixson’s story should serve as an inspiration to students who, for one reason or another, question their ability to achieve success and as an inspiration to those who have the fiscal means to help make life better for others.

Chris Hixson is a very special person. The world needs far more individuals with her commitment, honesty, vision and belief in the importance of encouraging, facilitating and stimulating young people to realize the importance of a good education.

She has demonstrated what can be accomplished.