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Investing in What Matters: Meet Scholarship Donor Tamlin Fortner

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Aeolian magazine.

Each spring, GSW hosts its Annual Donor Scholar Luncheon, and each year, without fail, Mrs. Tamlin Fortner, 85, travels from her home in Columbus, Ga. to meet her current scholarship recipients face to face. One by one, she engages in lively conversation with students, expressing genuine interest in their passions and hopes for the future.

“I just appreciate anyone trying to better themselves in college,” says Mrs. Fortner. “What these students are doing is so important, and I want to help them realize just how important it is.”

Over the past 34 years, the Tammy Lee Fortner Scholarship has provided nearly 400 students with financial assistance toward their education, placing the Fortners in the Founders category – the highest cumulative giving level. In 1988, Tamlin and her late husband, Neal, established the endowed scholarship for majors in either fine arts or psychology and sociology. It was created as a living memorial to their daughter Tammy Lee, who lost her life in a tragic highway accident on April 5, 1985 at the age of 23. Tammy Lee graduated with a degree in fine arts from Valdosta State University in 1983 and was pursuing a graduate degree at GSW when she passed away.

“My daughter was interested in everything art-related,” says Tamlin. “[Tammy Lee] painted with watercolors and oils, made pottery…she had a passion for helping others. She loved doing art therapy for those struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. She also worked with kids, teaching them how to work the potter’s wheel. When she was here at GSW, she studied business…she wanted to open her own art therapy business.”

Tammy Lee inherited the values of service and generosity from both her parents. Tamlin and Neal were heavily involved in the Americus community, Tamlin as a science teacher at Americus High School for 13 years and Neal as a pastor for several Baptist churches, including 10 years at Friendship Baptist Church in Americus. Neal was also an Area Mental Health Director for the Georgia Department of Human Resources and President of the Civitan Club of Americus.

“We love this University,” Tamlin says, reflecting on her family’s time living near GSW. “I had already received my masters in Milledgeville, but I took an accounting course here…and our son graduated here in business and so did my niece.”

The Fortners’ son, Lloyd “Neal” Fortner, Jr. ’86 currently works as an electrician with Anchor Glass in Warner Robins, Ga.

In honor of Tammy Lee’s unique gifts and passions, the scholarship in her name is given to students who demonstrate an interest or talent in the use of arts in human services such as art therapy, recreational therapy, occupational therapy, and music therapy. One former student, Phil Vinson, expresses how much the financial support meant to him:

“The [scholarship] allowed me to focus on my schoolwork. This focus ultimately blossomed into our company, Mobile Glassblowing Studios in Americus, founded in 2015. Since our founding, we have built equipment for glass artists in a dozen different countries.”

Current scholarship recipients send letters of gratitude to Mrs. Fortner each year, which she carefully collects and “reads each one twice.” Many have gone on to establish careers as professionals in music, art, acting, theater, interior design and even the health field.

Mandy (Fuller) Barr, who explains how the scholarship helped her find a career path she loves:

“I was a pre-med/biology major during my first semester of college, but something was missing from my first-year experience. When Jeff Green introduced the Fortner Scholarship to me, I immediately became a dramatic arts major and continued to find my ‘home’ within the GSW dramatic arts theatre. My degree in dramatic arts provided the foundation for several fulfilling career paths to come, such as teaching, academic counseling, directing and working with military caregivers.”

In addition to bringing clarity to a student’s choice of study, scholarships can help mitigate the significant financial stress faced by many college students. Recent studies have shown that about one-third of students who start a four-year college degree never finish, and according to a LendEDU survey, roughly half of those students drop out due to financial difficulties. College students who struggle financially are also more prone to develop physical and mental health conditions.

For Nicholas Merchant, a visual arts student who graduated in 2021, the Fortner Scholarship opened up the possibility for him to even consider attending college:

“As the eldest son in a farming family of ten children, going to a university seemed so daunting in a financial sense. There would have been no economically viable way I could have made it this far without [Mrs. Fortner’s] support. Knowing [she has] helped not only me, but hundreds of students, makes me want to give it my all to make Georgia a better place…”

Being financially unburdened allows students to focus on their learning and formulate plans for their future, and also provides the margin they need to give back while living on campus. Jamal Floyd, a visual arts major in his junior year, explains:

“Not having to work as much or put further financial burdens on my mother has made it so much easier for me to become more involved on campus to make it enjoyable for other students.”

Jamal was impacted not only by the financial help he received, but by meeting Mrs. Fortner in person at this year’s Donor Scholar Luncheon.

“I remember when I first met her at the luncheon,” recalls Jamal, “and I was losing motivation to put my best effort into school, but when I heard her speak I realized just how much she believed in us by supporting our education. I can’t express my appreciation in words, but thank you so much!”

GSW is committed to making even more of these success stories possible by providing financial assistance through Propel: GSW’s Scholarship Campaign, which aims to raise one million dollars for scholarships by the end of 2023. When asked whether she would encourage others to participate as a scholarship donor, Mrs. Fortner responds with enthusiasm:

“Oh yes, I would encourage others to do the best they can to help somebody else. It doesn’t have to be big, but it’s so important to these students that they have some help.”

The Tammy Lee Fortner Scholarship has indeed preserved the legacy of a daughter whose passion for art and community service was contagious; it continues today to nurture the talents and dreams of GSW students. And when Mrs. Fortner is thanked in person by students, alumni and staff for her long-standing contribution to such a noble cause, she says with a warm smile, “Well, I hope and pray it has made a difference. I want to do it as long as I can…so far, so good.”