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Legacy of love lends support without strings

Mary Tibbetts Brandes ’71 shows her mom, Polly Enix Tibbets, the lobby of Burnett Residence Hall. The renovated space honors Polly, who left Carson-Newman in the 1940s when she was needed to help raise younger siblings.

(Dec. 16, 2014) – A thriving Carson-Newman relationship traces its origins to 1945 and an unfinished freshman year. It has since enveloped another 13 family members and is enhancing University programs and aesthetics in inspirational ways.

Part of that rich legacy is 1971 alumna Mary Tibbetts Brandes, who, with her husband Russ, appreciates the institution and celebrates her family’s legacy through financial contributions. Made “without strings,” these gifts support several areas, including academic scholarships, the Annual Fund, Women of Vision initiatives and building enhancements that are “transformative.”

The Appalachian Cultural Center is one example of an existing space that has been altered in fresh and exciting ways.

“It feels like a home again,” said Center Director Jennifer Hall of the 1930s-era single-family frame structure located on the corner of Russell Avenue and King Street. “And it’s not just students; alumni and the community are excited to see it come back to life.”

While she does not mandate how funds are used, Mary is nonetheless an invested supporter.

“Mary is great,” affirms Hall. “She was willing to really listen and make things happen. It went from a kind of remodel/facelift to a substantial renovation of the ground floor.”

In spring of 1946, with one full semester in the books, Carson-Newman was still becoming home to freshman Polly Enix. Receiving news that her older sister was ill and needed help out of state, Polly left with hopes to return and continue her studies. That chance closed when she was needed in Florida to raise her youngest brother and sister.

“I loved going (to Carson-Newman),” said Polly, who would marry and have four children, the oldest of which is Mary. “I wish I could have stayed, but I had to take care of my family, and that was always important to me.”

Florida was life changing. Polly met and married a hardworking Caymanian immigrant named Linton Tibbetts. Pushed from his native Cayman Brac by limited work opportunities, Merchant Marine work and service on a U.S. Army troop ship got him through WWII. A postwar homebuilder in St. Petersburg, Linton bought half-interest in Cox Lumber, the supply company he used.

Florida and Cox Lumber boomed together. Linton purchased land, added stores, bought out his partner, expanded even more and moved into banking. His numerous business successes include a host of tourism investments back home in the Caymans and selling the 26-store lumber enterprise to Home Depot in 2006.

Having chosen Carson-Newman, Mary recalls having some sense of fulfilling her mother’s dream of 20 years earlier. She allows that such sentiments were soon trumped by her own deep love for the institution.

Mary began Carson-Newman “not shy,” but “not confident either.”

“But, during my time here, I became much more aware of God’s plan for me, and of how I wanted to live my life. Mom has always said that Carson-Newman was the best thing that could have happened for me. I went in as a young girl and came out as a mature young woman.

Dorm “interactions and friendships” became the foundation for her life, including marriage. Mary and Russ first met as members of a wedding party for a Carson-Newman couple. She was unsuccessful in begging off a subsequent dinner the couple had planned with him. They married three weeks later – nearly 43 years and three children ago.

For nearly 40 years, the couple appreciated Carson-Newman from afar. They were pleased with Mary’s experience, as well that of their son Jeff ’99 (a Florida state senator) and other extended family members, and certainly for their relationship. They therefore made contributions, including during Mary’s term as a trustee more than a decade ago. Even so, she admits they needed “something more” to become engaged supporters.

The “more” happened five years ago on Cayman Brac when President Randall O’Brien and wife Kay arrived for a serendipitous stay while the Brandeses were there. The couples clicked, becoming fast friends with much in common – robust faith, love for Christian education in general and a special interest in Carson-Newman’s future.

Having served as a teacher, elementary school principal and head of St. Petersburg’s Northside Christian School, Mary is an expert in the field of faith-based, private education. Those experiences educated her philanthropy, teaching her that an institution’s leaders best understand needs, both for the present and the future; hence, the couple’s stricture-free benevolence.

The level of trust the Brandeses put in Carson-Newman’s first couple undergirds their generosity. Mary confirmed it while showing her mother Burnett Residence Hall’s renovated lobby, a Women of Vision project accomplished in “Miss Polly’s” honor. A companion asked Mary about the generous reconnection.
She glanced across the lobby toward the O’Briens, who were talking with her husband.

“It’s because of them,” she said, with a nod. “It’s because of the way they love the Lord and the vision they have for Carson-Newman.”

Art Department Chair Julie Rabun is grateful for the couple’s help in replacing 118 windows original to the 1939 Warren Art Building. While several donors provided enough to address one-quarter of the windows, the Brandes infusion secured the remainder and ensured installation before the 2014-15 school year.

“For our students, it’s an incredible, transformative experience,” says Rabun.

“I think Mary really appreciates what happens here at C-N, and I think her heart is for the students. The things they have done here have been an outward expression of that heart.”

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