We Could Do It, So We Did

Twenty years ago, Jim and Caroleen Willits set a goal to become part of an important group: the UM Foundation Benefactors Society.

Now, after giving more than $100,000 to UM in their lifetimes, the Willits have reached their target. Jim Willits says it was simply the right thing to do.

“If somebody provides something to you, there aren’t any free lunches,” he says. “You should provide it back. And becoming a Benefactor at the University was something that we could do, so we did.”

Raised in north central Montana on a wheat and barley farm in Fort Benton, Jim says western Montana has been a strong draw for his family for generations. The University is at the heart of their love for the region.

“My two sisters and one brother all graduated from the University of Montana,” he says. “My father never graduated from high school, let alone college, but my parents made it a priority for us to go to school.”

The Willits’ daughter also graduated with a master’s in speech pathology, and their granddaughter with a bachelor’s in communicative sciences, all from UM.

After graduating with a degree from the School of Pharmacy in 1967, Jim first worked in Havre, Mont., before life took him back to Fort Benton. He bought Benton Pharmacy and began a career as a pharmacist and businessman in his hometown.

“The fact is that UM provided an education to me, at a reasonable cost, which led to a job and a chance to own a business and provide a good living for my family,” he says. “And most importantly, I got to stay in Montana.”

A graduate of Montana State University Great Falls College, now called the University of Great Falls, Caroleen’s dedication to higher education is evident as well.

Over the years the Willits’ generosity has bolstered the Grizzly Scholarship Association and the Alumni Association, with the lion’s share given to the Skaggs School of Pharmacy. Jim Willits also has donated his time: he served on the advisory board of the pharmacy program for more than 15 years and spent six years on the UM Foundation Board of Trustees.

“It is an honor to be a part of the University community and to have served on the Foundation board and with the pharmacy program,” he says. “It was an honor to be asked. My wife and I think that education is the solution to many of the world’s problems, so to be a part of shaping UM feels good.”

Now that the Willits are retired (he after selling his pharmacy business to another UM alumnus, she after a long career as an elementary school teacher), they have even more time to devote to one of their favorite pastimes: Grizzly football.

“Since 1967, I have never missed a Homecoming at UM,” Jim says. “And since they put in the new stadium 28 years ago, I have only missed four games.”

The Willits say they are grateful for their experiences with UM.

“A lot of my lifelong friends came from my time at UM, with many of my oldest friends dating back to my membership in our fraternity, SAE,” says Jim. “It was an opportunity to make friends and have great experiences, and today it just feels good.”