Old Louisville money spoke loudly about Neeli Bendapudi’s future as the new President when local philanthropist and socialite Christy Brown announced this week she was giving $5 million to the University of Louisville.
“Our university has today turned a glorious page, and it’s begun a new chapter with the arrival of our fabulous new president,” said Brown as she made a pledge to a new UofL Envirome Institute to study the effects of the environment on individual health.
The matriarch. The grande dame. Christy Brown had spoken.
Brown was, in effect, announcing her blessing for Bendapudi just five weeks after she assumed the office at the UofL on May 15th. The importance of her actions can’t be overstated. The widow of the late Owsley Brown II is the matriarch of the powerful Brown family dynasty that derived its fortune from Brown-Forman Distillers.
The influence of the Browns and others in the extended family is pervasive. It was Christy Brown, remember, who hosted Prince Charles in Louisville during his four-day visit to the U.S. in 2015. The family also hosted Queen Elizabeth at the Kentucky Derby in 2007.
Making the guest list for Brown’s parties or events she attends is a must for the socially ambitious. She’s always the center of attention in any activity in which she participates, with ambitious admirers eager to greet and be seen with her.
Standing behind Brown at the UofL announcement were daughter Brook Brown and her husband Matthew Barzun, who was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain under Obama. Barzun was once mentioned as a possible candidate for the UofL presidency. Also there was Augusta Brown, married to Gill Holland, a prominent Louisville developer credited with developing the NuLu area.
Close family connections with the Browns include the Fraziers, descendants of Garvin Brown, who founded Brown-Forman. The late Owsley Brown Frazier, another BF executive, gave UofL a gift of $25 million in 2011. It remains the largest contribution in the school’s history.
Another generous contributor was Steve Wilson, married to Laura Lee Brown, cousin to late Owsley Brown II. The founder of 21C Hotels, Wilson was the UofL Trustee who started the revolt against former President Jim Ramsey in 2015. An open records request to UofL indicated that Wilson and his wife had contributed more than $1.3 million before Wilson resigned in 2015.
Sandra Frazier, the daughter of Amelia Brown Frazier and the niece of Owsley B. Frazier, is a member of the University of Louisville Board of Trustees. She’s also the owner of Tandem Public Relations and, more importantly, a member of the Board of Directors of the Glenview Trust Fund.
The person who runs Glenview Trust just happens to be J. David Grissom, the Chairman of the UofL Board of Trustees. Brown family members and their foundations are known to use Glenview Trust Co., currently managing an estimated $6.5 billion in assets. Clientele reportedly include 500 of the area’s wealthiest families.
Bendapudi has been non-stop coming aboard in mid-May, meeting with one decision maker after another. Recent tweets included photos of her with power hitters David Jones and David Jones, Jr., of the C.E. & S. Foundation, and John Schnatter, of Papa John’s.
She has also met with leaders of the J. Graham Brown Foundation, the Humana Foundation, the David Novak (Yum!) family, and Kosair Charities, as well as the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Louisville delegation to the General Assembly, the Kentucky Council on Post Secondary Education, the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate and the Student Government Association.
Bendapudi has been constantly on the go, touching all the bases with all the decision makers, the people who will make UofL whole again. Having the blessing of Christy Brown is a significant milestone, opening many more doors for the new administration. A new chapter, indeed, for the University of Louisville.