The Backstory Behind a Big Gift to the University of Arizona to Close the Veterinarian Gap

The late Kemper Marley is not exactly a household name in the philanthropic world. And in Arizona, where Marley made his fortune, his name has not always carried positive associations. 

The foundation that bears Marley’s name, however, has done much to burnish his image, funding art galleries, museums, and university facilities. Most recently, the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation, now run by Marley’s grandchildren, gave $9 million to the University of Arizona to support the university’s Veterinary Medical and Surgical Program. The program is scheduled to begin in 2015 and will be the first veterinary program at a public university in Arizona. Presently, aspiring veterinarians in Arizona must compete for slots at veterinary schools in neighboring Colorado and other states, which may prefer in-state residents.

Marley began leasing ranches in his 20s and soon built a vast real estate portfolio. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Marley became one of Arizona’s largest liquor wholesalers. Over the years, as his fortune and political clout grew, allegations of mismanagement and nepotism surfaced. These claims drew the attention of Don Bolles, a reporter for the Arizona Republic newspaper, who began a series of reports about Marley.

In 1976, Bolles was killed by a bomb planted in his car. The man who admitted planting the bomb claimed he had been hired to kill Bolles because Marley did not like Bolles’ stories. Police found no evidence tying Marley to the bombings, and he was never charged. Marley consistently denied involvement in Bolles’ death, but in the minds of many, the two were forever linked. 

Time and a generous record of philanthropy, however, have helped rehabilitate Kemper Marley’s image. Shortly before his death in 1990, Marley created the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation, which has since become one of the largest funders in Arizona.

The endowment of the Kemper and Ethel Marley Veterinary Medical and Surgical Program is designed to help the university address the state’s shortage of veterinarians. In addition, the program plans to operate year-round, enabling students to complete their degrees faster and incur less debt. Students in the program will spend their final two semesters in private veterinary practices or government agencies to ensure they enter the workforce with hands-on experience.

This is important because, while the financial burdens on medical students and young doctors have been widely reported, similar problems among veterinarians get less attention. In turn, those hardships relate to the shortage of veterinarians in many places.

This is not the funder’s first gift to the University of Arizona. Previously, the foundation gave the school $4.5 million for a research and extension program focusing on sustainable rangeland management. The Marley Foundation also endowed a rural leadership initiative at the university.