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Helen Robson Walton was a noted philanthropist. Her husband, Walmart founder Sam Walton, called her one of his best advisors. When ranked as one of the world’s wealthiest women and asked for a description of her work, she defined herself simply as “volunteer to community, state and nation.” Along with making large charitable donations in areas such as the arts, education, and organizations for families and children, she was the first woman to be named chairwoman of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Foundation.
Helen Alice Robson was born on December 3, 1919, in Claremore, Oklahoma. She was the daughter of homemaker Hazel Carr Robson and banker/rancher Leland Stanford (L. S.) Robson. She had three brothers and a sister. The family lived modestly, with her mother being remembered for bringing large pots of vegetable soup to the Claremore elementary school so children would not go hungry during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
To help her learn the value of money, she was given her own checking account at age thirteen. After high school in Claremore, Robson entered Christian College in Columbia, Missouri, in 1937.Two years later, she transferred to the University of Oklahoma at Norman, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance in 1941. She returned to her parents’ home in Claremore, where she worked for her father and kept the books for his ranch.
In 1942, she met fellow Oklahoman Sam Walton, who arrived in Claremore from Des Moines, Iowa, where he had been working at a J. C. Penney store. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and was working in Oklahoma for the DuPont Corporation while waiting to be called up for active duty. Within weeks of meeting, they were engaged; they married on February 14, 1943. The couple had four children: Samuel Robson (Rob), John, Jim, and Alice.
After Sam Walton finished his military service in World War II, the newlyweds moved to the small town of Newport (Jackson County) in 1945. With a loan of $25,000 from Helen’s father, Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin “five-and-dime” store. The couple became active in church, civic, and community groups, but they were forced to leave Newport when Sam Walton’s lease on the Ben Franklin store was not renewed. After visiting Bentonville (Benton County) with Helen’s father, Sam Walton opened Walton’s 5¢ and 10¢ store on the town square.
Wishing to enter the discount retail business, Sam Walton opened the first Walmart in the nearby town of Rogers (Benton County) in 1962. The chain grew into the largest retailer in the world, keeping its headquarters in Bentonville, where Sam and Helen Walton resided in a modest home.
As they had been in Newport, Walton and her husband were active in church, civic, and community groups. The family often went camping, where Walton indulged her love of painting with watercolors. She was instrumental in establishing Walmart’s business strategy of focusing on small towns. Sam Walton stated that he considered his wife one of his best business advisors and credited her with encouraging him to offer a profit-sharing plan for Walmart employees.
In 1985, the Waltons began the Walton International Scholarship Program, which funds scholarships for students in Central America and Mexico to attend college in Arkansas. The Waltons were also early supporters of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Benton County, and they created a scholarship program for Walmart employees and their dependents.
After Sam Walton died in 1992, Walton became even more involved in philanthropy. She presided over the Walton Family Foundation when it made a $300 million gift to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 2002, which followed an earlier $50 million donation to fund the Sam M. Walton College of Business, constituting the largest gift ever made to a public university in the United States up to that time.
In 1989, Walton donated $500,000 to endow a chair in marketing strategy at her alma mater, the University of Oklahoma. In 2006, she donated $20 million to the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville (Johnson County), where she chaired the board of trustees and served as honorary lifetime chairwoman. Other philanthropies include the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville and the Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center in Bentonville, a nonprofit childcare center.
On April 19, 2007, after heart failure following a lengthy illness, Walton died in Bentonville at age eighty-seven. She is buried at the Bentonville Cemetery.
For additional information:
Trimble, Vance H. Sam Walton Founder of Wal-Mart: The Inside Story of America’s Richest Man. New York: Dutton, 1990.
“Walton, Retailer’s Widow, Dies at 87.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. April 20, 2007, pp. 1A, 12A.
Walton, Sam, and John Huey. Sam Walton: Made in America. New York: Bantam, 1993.
Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated 5/9/2017
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