Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Building Blocks from Background, Lauries Step to the Fore for Mu

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Building Blocks from Background, Lauries Step to the Fore for Mu

Article excerpt

Eighth-grader Bill Laurie and ninth-grader Nancy Walton were sweethearts back in 1966 in Versailles, Mo. (pop. 2,604). Nancy's father owned the town's Ben Franklin 5-and-10 store.

Thirty years later, after so many Ben Franklins have given way to so m any Wal-Mart stores, Bill and Nancy still are sweethearts. They're husband-wife owners of Crown Center Farms, a horse-breeding ranch in Columbia.

They're also benefactors who've stepped front-and-center as architects of Missouri's athletic future. Last month, the couple donated $10 million, earmarked as seed money for a new basketball arena.

It was the largest single, private gift made to MU in the school's history.

Of course, it wasn't exactly without precedent, inasmuch as Nancy's father, the late James L. "Bud" Walton, had financed the building of Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena, which opened in 1993. Bud Walton and Nancy's uncle, the late Sam Walton, had founded the Wal-Mart chain.

According to the most recent Forbes 400, the Lauries are worth $525 million, most of it coming from inheritance after the death of Nancy's father.

That may seem like glossy stuff, but the Lauries don't bask in it. They aren't listed on the pages of "Who's Who In America," and - before the gift - they weren't even particularly well-known in Columbia.

"We are not really spotlight people," Bill says.

At the May 6 ceremony in which the gift was announced, Bill fidgeted in a black suit with old-gold pinstripes. He blushed whenever applause was sent his way.

He'd prefer to play in the background, and play as part of the team, as he once did as a guard on Memphis State's national runner-up in 1973.

Laurie went on to coach at CBC high school in Memphis, and then at Rock Bridge High in Columbia from 1978-83. He left coaching to devote himself full-time to the horse farm.

But the love of the sport remained. Laurie said he and Nancy and their daughter, Paige, 14, "enjoy good basketball . . . there's nothing better than NCAA basketball."

The Laurie Landscape

To be sure, the lifestyle of Bill and Nancy has changed since the days when Nancy rode her horse into "downtown" Versailles, and tethered her to the meter in front of the Ben Franklin.

But while wealth, and now fame, have become part of their lives, their small-town background still pokes through.

The Lauries don't live in stately Wayne manor, away from the pulse of Columbia. Crown Center Farms is a functional farm surrounded by subdivisions. Farm tractors occasionally back up traffic on the busy t wo-lane road that runs past the property. Bill frets over the details of the farm, like recent heavy rains that make it difficult to mow grass.

While Bill and Nancy certainly have enough money to have hired help do all the farm work, they hold up their end. The day that news of the Lauries' gift leaked out, Bill spent part of his afternoon elbow-deep in hay. They work seven days a week.

"Horses eat on Sundays just like they do on Thursdays," Bill says.

On a warm, breezy afternoon two days before the formal gift announcement, Bill looks much more relaxed on his farm, wearing a chambray shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes. Nancy isn't flashy either, but she looks more comfortable with her status. She wears big, round Chanel gold earrings as easily as Bill wears chambray.

The farm, which the Lauries started in the late '70s, is a product of Nancy's love of horses, instilled in Bill during their high school and college years. …

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