Stephen Lair Gifts Fulfill Education Dreams for Fay Jones School Students

Stephen Lair visits with Josi Chavez in 2016 during the Honors Recognition Reception and Ceremony for the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.
Photo by Ironside Photography

Stephen Lair visits with Josi Chavez in 2016 during the Honors Recognition Reception and Ceremony for the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.

A lifelong interest in architecture and design spurred University of Arkansas alumnus Stephen Lair to support the education of Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design students. 

Over the last several years, he’s established four scholarships that provide funds for students in the school’s undergraduate and graduate programs, totaling more than $1.25 million.

The William Stephen Lair Design Scholarship provides $40,000 over five years, to benefit a student in the interior architecture and design program, with preference given to students from a 13-county region of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. The scholarship is automatically renewable if minimum requirements are met.

“We are very thankful to Stephen Lair for supporting our efforts to expand educational access and provide life-changing opportunities to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Chancellor Charles Robinson. “His generosity will enable many students to immerse themselves in their studies, experience the full range of campus life and develop the knowledge and skills needed for both personal and professional success.”

Lair has also committed to three testamentary gifts to the Fay Jones School. The William Stephen Lair Endowed Scholarships in Retail and Hospitality Design, to be funded with a $500,000 gift, will be awarded to students in the Master of Design Studies graduate program, specifically those pursuing the Retail and Hospitality Design Concentration. 

The William Stephen Lair Endowment in Interior Design, to be funded with a $250,000 gift, will be awarded to students in the undergraduate interior architecture and design program. 

The William Stephen Lair Endowed Scholarship for Design Excellence, to be funded with a $500,000 gift, will provide financial assistance for two undergraduate students studying architecture or interior architecture and design. This assistance, available to Arkansas high school graduates, would pay most tuition and related academic fees for the duration of the chosen degree program. 

“Steve Lair, through his selfless generosity to the Fay Jones School over the last nine years, has changed lives,” said Peter MacKeith, dean of the school. “The Lair scholarships are transformative, as their student recipients attest, and the Lair legacy gifts will enhance the school’s scholarship funds and academic programs for years to come. Steve’s vision, open heart and goodwill are manifested by these gifts, and on behalf of the school, I am deeply grateful.” 

“We are so thankful for Stephen Lair and his unwavering commitment to student success,” said Scott Varady, vice chancellor for university advancement. “His generosity will remove financial barriers and profoundly improve access to life-changing opportunities for our students.”

AN EARLY INTEREST IN DESIGN

Lair had many interests in his youth in Harrison — working on model cars, experimenting with his chemistry set, and playing piano and guitar — and he always felt drawn to architecture and design. He drew designs, completed elaborate building sets and eventually built things in his backyard. As he watched a residential development go up in his neighborhood, he wondered why the houses all had to look alike.

The only child of older parents, Lair enrolled in business school because he knew one day he’d take over the wholesale petroleum marketing company his dad, ML Lair, had started.

“It was kind of set in stone that that’s what I was going to do,” Lair said. “As it all turns out, that was probably the best thing. I might not be doing what I’m doing today and have the scholarships available if I hadn’t done that.” 

Lair completed a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1972 from the Walton College of Business. With his marketing degree in hand, Lair took on accounting and marketing duties as well as general management at his dad’s company. It had been a single proprietorship company, and Lair incorporated it that year, as Lair Oil.

Lair soon added a business partner, Steve Turner, who’d been a fraternity brother. After selling Lair Oil in 1986, they established Petromark, a wholesale fuel business, in 1988. The partners expanded the company by establishing convenience stores across the Ozarks region. The first White Oak Station store was in Harrison, the second in Siloam Springs.

Petromark grew to be the seventh-largest private company in Northwest Arkansas. It supplied more than 240 convenience stores and trucking companies in three states before the company sold in 2021.

With the White Oak Stations, Lair had an opportunity to use his architecture interest to influence the design of stores, which he wanted to look unique. Working with an architect with whom they had a great relationship, Lair often brought in his own sketches and design ideas. 

“We always tried to stay ahead of what competition was doing, and we certainly did that for a long time,” he said.

They wanted their stores to look and be more than a gas station, offering a “wow factor.” They were one of the first to forgo a drop ceiling to leave the HVAC system exposed and painted black. They used unique colors and surface materials and added in Wi-Fi and overhead music.

“We wanted you to enjoy your experience once you got in there. We didn’t want to just get you in and out of the door,” he said. “We wanted to exceed your expectations.”

Their station designs peaked at the store at Pinnacle Hills in Rogers. The concept for the store was a gourmet cafe and grocery store, in the style of a Dean & DeLuca in New York City. Nicknamed “Gucci Gas,” it had a stylish curved canopy over the gas pumps, and inside, customers could find fresh seafood flown in three times a week, along with a meat department.

COMMITTING TO STUDENT SUCCESS

When he was looking to give an initial gift to the Fay Jones School, Lair wanted his contribution to have an immediate impact — one he’d be around to see. He found out what it takes to send a student through the program — about $8,000 a year — and he made a five-year commitment in 2015. Rather than a testamentary gift or endowed fund, he wanted all the money to be spent now, and he wanted to meet the recipient. 

“I want to see this person grow. And I want it to be given to someone who doesn’t have the means to do it on their own,” he said. 

Lair didn’t have to work while going to college; finances weren’t an issue. “I didn’t know how grateful I should be for that at the time,” he said.

With his gift to design students, Lair is helping others live a dream of a career in design that he once had. 

“I’ve had a tremendous, fortunate life, but it’s kind of letting someone else live my old dream,” he said. “It’s kind of neat. Especially someone who originally wouldn’t have gotten to do it.”

Josi Chavez, originally from Monett, Missouri, received her Bachelor of Interior Design from the U of A in 2017. Ever since graduating, she has worked in interior design at River+Lime in Denver, Colorado. 

Chavez was the first recipient of the William Stephen Lair Design Scholarship and received it for both her junior and senior years. “It allowed me to finish school strong, which was crucial for those more intensive studios,” she said.

The Lair scholarship provided the opportunity for Chavez to travel and study abroad in her junior year, “which allowed me to have an eye-opening experience that I wouldn't have had otherwise,” she said. “It also allowed me to focus more on studio and alleviated some of the stress that came from having a part-time job.” 

“I’m forever grateful for Mr. Lair’s support,” Chavez said, “and I’m excited for all the future students that will benefit from his generosity.”

Lair said his collective giving to the Fay Jones School is largely inspired by the school’s growth and success in the last 10 years. Faculty and students are regularly recognized with awards and grants; a new applied research center — the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation — is under construction; and the school’s faculty has had two recipients of the prestigious American Institute of Architects Gold Medal: Fay Jones and Marlon Blackwell. 

Lair said he is proud to join the many others who’ve contributed gifts to support the success of the school, and in particular, to invest in the lives of its students and their future careers.

“It makes you feel good that all that’s happening. You may be a very small part of it, but it’s still a part of it,” he said.

Lair is a member of the Towers of Old Main giving society and a member of Thoroughreds at the U of A. He previously has served on the Student Affairs Executive Advisory Board.

About the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design: The Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas houses undergraduate professional design programs of architecture, landscape architecture and interior architecture and design together with a liberal studies program. The school also offers a Master of Design Studies, with concentrations in health and wellness design, resiliency design, integrated wood design, and retail and hospitality design. The DesignIntelligence 2019 School Rankings Survey listed the school among the most hired from architecture, landscape architecture and interior design schools, ranking 10th, 14th and eighth, respectively, as well as 28th among most admired architecture schools.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas’ flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.

Contacts

Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design
479-575-4704, mparks17@uark.edu

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