A $2 million gift to the ECU Foundation Inc. from entrepreneurs Harland and Shirley Stonecipher will provide a major boost to the construction of a new business school and conference center at East Central University.
The 62,000 square-foot building – which will house the Harland C. Stonecipher School of Business – will be located due west of the Hallie Brown Ford Fine Arts Center and is estimated to cost $10-12 million.
“With the Stoneciphers’ gift,” said ECU President John Hargrave, “we believe the building can be constructed without borrowing any money.
“Through their generous contribution to the new ECU School of Business, Harland and Shirley Stonecipher have shown how an entrepreneurial vision can become a reality that benefits many,” Hargrave said. “As business students walk into the ECU School of Business, they will be reminded of the Stonecipher name and what can be achieved through innovation, hard work and dedication.”
The vision for the structure started taking form several years ago as numerous partners began making generous contributions for the proposed facility.
Harland Stonecipher graduated from ECU in 1960 with a degree in education with a major in English. Following a brief career as a teacher and speech coach, he became an insurance salesman. In 1969, while driving to a sales appointment, he was involved in an automobile accident that literally changed his life. The legal wrangling that ensued led to his founding of Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc.
Realizing he had insurance for everything except legal expenses, he decided to design and sell legal service plans that would give members access to professional legal counsel for a monthly fee. He grew the company from scratch to the point it was ultimately listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
But success did not come easily. Starting the business was extremely hard, he said.
“It took a long time,” Stonecipher said. “Fifteen years, as some have said, to become an ‘overnight success.’ Nobody had heard of anything like it. They thought it was a crazy idea. Shirley was never ready to quit, but I was, a number of times.”
Today, the company has more than 400,000 independent sales associates and nearly 1.5 million families own memberships.
A new chapter in the Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. story began on June 30, however, when the company was sold to MidOcean Partners, a leading U.S. private equity firm, for $650 million. The PPLS name has been changed to LegalShield.
Stonecipher believes that people can change their lives simply by changing their minds. Attitude makes the difference.
“When I was in my early 30’s I started reading all the self-help books,” he said. “I thought they had the secret to success. I realized they all referred back to the Bible. ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ Attitude determines altitude!
“I believed that more and more as time went along. Today, I feel more strongly than I ever did because I’ve seen it work so many times. People who never finished high school, who have never been around successful people, have become millionaires. This has caused me to develop a training program I call ‘The Blueprint for Success.’”
Working with people, especially those who at first showed no aptitude as sales associates, and seeing them become successful has given the Stoneciphers great satisfaction.
“There are a number of people that Shirley and I have helped and it changed their lives. We feel so good about that,” he said.
“It’s not about your family background. It’s how you feel. You have the ability to do what you want to do. Too many people think there’s some invisible hand that holds you down.
“That hand is yours, and you can move it.”
Stonecipher said his lifelong role as an entrepreneur inspired him to make the major contribution to ECU.
“East Central University is very important to us,” he said. “I was the first in my family to obtain a degree in higher education. Both of our children, Allen and Brent, received degrees from ECU. Now, our first grandchild, Greg, is enrolled here.
“We know that students pursuing business degrees have an entrepreneurial drive within them and we want to be a part of feeding that spirit. We appreciate what ECU is doing and commend President John Hargrave on the job he is doing – his vision, his persistence and his approach were a major factor in our decision. Dr. Hargrave is a tremendous asset to ECU and our community.”
Stonecipher also noted the vast majority of the PPLS management are graduates of ECU.
“I’ve said many times, in many places, that the management team we have is second to none,” he said. “They would do well at any business, anywhere in the world. ECU had a part in making them the people they are.”
In many ways it was hard to give up his company, he admitted, because of the many relationships he has formed over the years, almost like family.
“Obviously, the last 40-plus years of our lives have been dedicated to Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. We’ve made mistakes along the way, but we never gave up and we always found a way to ‘keep on keeping on’ and to make it work.
“Now, it’s time to give someone else a chance. We’re not retired,” he pointed out. “We’re just doing something different.”
After the Stoneciphers lost their younger son Brent, his wife, Tina, and only granddaughter, Nikki, in an airplane crash on July 24, 2005, they tried to think of “how to make things better for us or ease the pain. We realized the only way to do this was to help others with their pain.
“Before, we’ve said, ‘We know how you feel’ (to people who have lost children). But we didn’t know how they feel, and you don’t want to know,” Stonecipher said.
“What people fear the most, and what we feared the most, since this was a whole family, is that our children will be forgotten after we are gone. People don’t want their children to be forgotten.”
They came up with the idea of building a memorial chapel where anyone in the United States or throughout the world could come and establish a memorial in the name of his or her child.
“We haven’t completely decided how we will do that,” Stonecipher said. “They will have a picture of their child, probably some kind of a statement and maybe some of their favorite things. We’re still working on that.”
The Stoneciphers have worked with the Kerr Foundation, the Chickasaw Nation and Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. to acquire a total of nine acres. This property near the Kerr cabin and Pre-Paid Legal (LegalShield) is one of the largest areas around Ada, overlooking a beautiful valley.
“We decided we should also probably have a church there so that something is going on all the time, so it will have life around it,” he said.
Their plans call for building a new Life Community Church, where the Stoneciphers are members, with a memorial chapel attached. The property will belong to the church.
As a result of the efforts and continued support of Mike Turpen, Gayle Serba and John Long, the Stoneciphers also established the Nikki Stonecipher Memorial Scholarship through the ECU Foundation in 2005 to provide full scholarships for students preferably from Tupelo High School where Brent and Tina Stonecipher were graduates.
And what if Harland Stonecipher had never been involved in that traffic accident in 1969?
“I’ve thought about that,” he said. “It changed the whole course of our lives. But I can’t imagine not doing this. There’s nothing I could have done that I would feel better about.”