Don and Ellie Knauss of Sugar Land, Texas, committed $5 million in January 2020 to support four areas within the VRSC: $2.5 million was dedicated to renovations for the new center; $1 million will be retained as a facility endowment for maintenance; and $1 million is directed to an excellence fund to provide funding for Texas A&M veteran programs.
Finally, the couple earmarked $500,000 as matching funds to encourage the creation of new veteran scholarships. During the past year, 18 donors took advantage of the match, resulting in 20 new endowed veteran scholarships. The Knausses had previously given more than $2 million toward 28 endowed student veteran scholarships.
Their initial connection to Aggieland is their eldest son and his wife, who both graduated from Texas A&M in 2010. But it is their belief in the power of education, authentic leadership, and their passion for the military that makes their relationship with Texas A&M and the VRSC a natural fit. Ellie’s father is a veteran and Don served in the U.S. Marine Corps, earning the rank of captain.
“The veterans who are returning from serving our country to further their education come with experiences that are quite different from most of the students,” said Ellie Knauss. “These young men and women, who have committed their lives to the safety and security of the United States, deserve the most powerful step up we can provide for them. An education is the best way to ensure they have an opportunity to maximize their full potential.”
Don Knauss, who was chief executive officer of Clorox from 2006 to 2014, credits the strong leadership of Col. Gerald Smith, VRSC director, and his team as motivation behind the gift.
“When we saw the limitation in physical space in which veterans could gather and where this talented team does its work, we recognized an opportunity,” he said. “We want the VRSC to have the infrastructure needed to execute these life-changing programs and to grow in the future. We also believe it’s important that student veterans have a central, welcoming place to gather and connect with others who understand their challenges and are dedicated to their academic success.”
From P&G to Global Philanthropy
The namesakes of Texas A&M’s center for veterans have spent their lives learning lessons about human nature, leadership, and purpose. These lessons and experiences are culminating in philanthropy and service that will carry the Knauss legacy well into the future.
Born in Hammond, Indiana, Don Knauss graduated from Indiana University in 1977 with a degree in history. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines, serving in Oahu, Hawaii, with the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines as an artillery officer. Ellie Knauss grew up in the Midwest and attended Duke University. Her first job out of college was at Procter & Gamble (P&G), where she worked in sales management of paper and met Don, who left the Marines in 1981 to work in brand management of paper for P&G. The couple has been together since.
“My career took some fun and unexpected turns because we decided we were going to follow Don’s career path, and I was lucky enough to find jobs whenever he was moved or promoted, which was often!” Ellie said.
Don grew his career first with P&G and later with Frito-Lay, Tropicana, The Coca-Cola Company, and finally Clorox. He holds key roles at three companies: Clorox Co. (director and chairman of the board), McKesson Corp. (independent director), URS Corp. (director) and Kellogg Co. (director).
He serves as chairman of the board at the University of San Diego and as a board member for the U.S. Marine Corps University Foundation and Morehouse College. A baseball enthusiast since the age of 5, he is responsible for renaming the Houston Astros’ stadium after Minute Maid and campaigning to keep the Oakland Athletics in Oakland. As a 2006 recipient of the ROBIE Award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation, he often reflects on the epitaph inscribed on Robinson’s grave: “A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.” It has become a mantra that guides the philanthropy and service of both Don and Ellie Knauss.
“We may never achieve true equality, but we can create equality of opportunity,” he said. “If you're in a leadership position, you can find ways to ensure that everyone has a fair and equitable playing field. Unless it can create wealth, there is no society on the planet that can take care of its most needy citizens, raise the standard of living, or make the investment necessary to preserve and protect the planet. That wealth must be created on a fair and equitable playing field. This is the inspiration behind our gifts to Texas A&M. We are trying to make the playing field fair and equitable so that every student veteran gets a fair shot to maximize the talent God gave them.”
Media contact: Ashley Drake, Texas A&M University Division of Student Affairs, Don & Ellie Knauss Veteran Resource and Support Center, 979-845-3161, firstname.lastname@example.org