(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Making sound investments matters more today than ever, and Jim Winston, a successful real estate developer, business owner and philanthropist, knows which investments bring the best return: friendships.
Over decades, Jim has built a successful career, been knocked flat by bad economies and always rebuilt even stronger. What has remained constant over time is his personal investment in people and in organizations that help folks bring out the best in themselves: developing a music school that serves symphony musicians as well as students at a local college; founding an Episcopal high school; shepherding the public television station in his community into the digital age; heading the chamber of commerce and the ports authority.
Jim is known for his commitment to doing the right thing. Unfamiliar with the currency in Mexico City when he and his late and beloved wife, Mary, were there on their honeymoon, he gave what he thought was a generous tip to a boy who helped them with their luggage. When Jim found out that the amount wasn’t much at all, he spent a half hour seeking out the boy to give him what he deserved.
Jim’s longtime friend Gilchrist Berg, founder of Water Street Capital, said, “You can’t go anywhere with Jim without him being approached by people from all walks of life whose lives have been touched by him in some important regard.”
Jim values his friendships; many have lasted 50 years or more. At the top of that list was Mary. Jim and Mary made a great team. Friends say she was the rock on which he built his success. When she died in January there were 31 pallbearers, each an intimate friend.
Paul Fulton ’57, who has known Jim since their prep school days, calls Jim a “high-maintenance donor” because he holds institutions that receive his donations to the same standards he holds for himself: nothing less than perfection. “Jim is a very high-energy person,” Paul said. “He’s a doer. Whatever he does, he does right.”
Even given his demanding responsibilities, Jim puts in the time and effort to keep people connected socially. Every summer for more than 40 years, he hosted the Balsam International Invitational Golf Tournament, inviting several couples to his home for a house party and weekend of golf. He has organized bike trips through France and weeklong vacations to the Tanglewood music festival, always including friends.
His long-term loyalty extends to Carolina. Jim’s family involvement with Carolina goes back six generations to the 1840s. Jim’s generosity spurred funding for the European Study Center in Winston House, the College of Arts and Sciences’ first overseas outpost. Jim made sure UNC understood that his gift was on behalf of his entire family. Portraits of his ancestors grace the halls of Winston House on Bedford Square in London.
Steven Wallace, president of Florida Community College, called Jim “an exceptional leader and a truly extraordinary person. Any organization so fortunate as to have his support will benefit immeasurably,” he said.
Jim donates his time to Carolina, having served on the UNC Board of Visitors, the GAA board and the board of the Arts and Sciences Foundation. And still, he said, UNC has given him more than he has given the school.
“Whenever anyone asks where I went to school, and I say, ‘Chapel Hill,’ I get a puff-out-your-chest feeling,” Jim said. “UNC provided me with a great education in a place where I felt valued and recognized. Because of that, I developed a sense of worth and self-confidence that anyone going out into the world needs to do anything with their life.”
In Jacksonville, where he’s made his home for many years, Jim has served on many boards and received numerous civic awards recognizing his civic and charitable contributions. He has been honored by UNC before, too, including last fall when he received the Board of Trustees’ William Richardson Davie Award. But receiving the Distinguished Service Medal is different, he said.
“When you receive an award from your peers,” he said, “you feel you’ve done something worthwhile.”
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. This year’s recipients are Bernadette Gray-Little, executive vice chancellor and provost; Dwight M. “Davy” Davidson ’77, past chair of the GAA Board of Directors; Fred N. Eshelman ’72, a major supporter of the pharmacy school; and James H. “Jim” Winston ’55, who helped establish the College of Arts and Sciences’ first overseas facility.