Once upon a time in Abilene nearly everyone knew or knew of Bill Jeffcoat.
He was the guy who took nearly everyone’s senior picture and just about everybody’s family portrait. He photographed events around the area and even developed most everyone’s film.
Bill was the last owner of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio, a family business that existed from Abilene’s earliest days until his death in 2007.
Today, Bill Jeffcoat’s legacy lives on through the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum, located at 321 N. Broadway, and also through the Jeffcoat Memorial Foundation, an entity which has helped untold numbers of Abilene area students and residents over the years.
Several times a year Abilene attorney Hank Royer, who serves as trustee of the Jeffcoat Foundation, attends Abilene school board meetings to donate money to help fund various school programs and initiatives.
“I have to come and see you every time and ask you to take money,” Royer quipped.
This past June, Royer attended the Abilene USD 435 Board of Education meeting to present a $10,000 check to the Summer Science Academy for first to sixth graders, something he has done since the program began in 2016.
“There’s probably only four or five of you who knew Bill Jeffcoat so I’m going to tell you a little bit about him,” Royer told the board.
Bill Jeffcoat was an Abilene native whose grandmother started a business developing film and doing photography in Abilene back in the 1800s, Royer said.
“It didn’t make a lot of money but they liked doing it,” he added.
Bill’s father continued on in the business and Bill learned it while growing up, but wasn’t interested in being a photographer or running a film developing shop, Royer said.
Friends with Serling
“He went off to Antioch College where he got assigned a roommate there by the name of Rod Serling who wrote all the Twilight Zone shows,” Royer said.
Bill and Serling, the host and screenwriter of the Emmy-winning series, remained lifelong friends. At times Bill sometimes traveled to California to visit Serling.
“Most people don’t know that,” Royer said.
Due to a downturn in the economy, Bill returned to Abilene and worked for his father at the photography studio and decided to buy it after his father retired.
“His father didn’t give it to him. Bill paid on it for 12 years to pay the $18,000 he had to finance with his father to buy the studio,” Royer explained.
Bill Jeffcoat came from humble beginnings and “remained humble his whole life,” Royer said, and was probably one of the “most frugal” people in Abilene.
“He never spent a nickel unless he figured he’d get a quarter’s worth out of the deal,” Royer commented.
But Bill developed a knack for investing, made some wise investments with the help of an Abilene financial adviser and made a significant sum of money, Royer said.
Estate taxes a deterrent
During a meeting with Bill about business issues, Royer said he mentioned estate planning.
“At the time there was a horrendous federal estate tax. If you had $60,000 when you died, you got to keep it all. If you had more than $60,000, you had to give at least 37 cents of every dollar above that to the federal government for federal estate tax,” Royer recalled. “Whatever you amassed through your life you could lose to the government.”
Bill — frugal as he was — did not like that idea so he and Royer set up the Jeffcoat Memorial Foundation long before Bill’s death.
“After he gave what he wanted to his family, we put (money) into this foundation and didn’t send a penny to Washington,” Royer said. “We could have sent millions of dollars to Washington. It would have left Abilene and never come back.”
Royer said Bill gave him several directives to follow when making donations.
“He wanted to find things in Abilene that would level the playing field, especially for kids. He wanted all kids to participate in events. Not just because their parents had an income at a certain level,” Royer said. “He also wanted me to help senior (citizens) where I could to help them to function like other seniors did.”
In the 12 years since the foundation began distributing funds in 2008, the Jeffcoat organization has not spent any of the money Bill left in the estate — just the interest income.
Royer said he’s given away “several million” dollars in Abilene for projects ranging from cradle to grave, prenatal programs to cemetery improvements.
“I’ve run about a half a million through this school board,” Royer told Abilene BOE members. “We try to find kids who are on free or reduced lunches and let them participate in things they couldn’t otherwise afford doing.”
Vision therapy is a relatively new project the Jeffcoat Foundation has helped fund that has made a difference for a number of students.
Royer said his daughter went all the way through Abilene schools and college with a vision problem that caused the words to “jump around,” making it difficult for her to read.
Despite his requests for screening, it was not a condition any of her teachers recognized or screened for, but it can affect a child’s academic performance, Royer said.
Later, Abilene school district learned it was a “real deal” and that vision therapy “can change a life,” he said.
“Kids could go from underperforming, unable to read, socially ostracized, to totally acculturated and ahead of their grade levels in a year or two. And it’s a permanent change,” Royer said.
The Jeffcoat Foundation has invested $160,000 through the school district to help kids needing vision therapy. The funds pay not only for treatment, but transportation costs as well.
The Jeffcoat Foundation also helps qualifying Abilene High School students get a head start on college through the Jeffcoat Memorial Dual Credit College Scholarship. It pays for classes students can take in high school that qualify for both high school and college credit.
“They (classes) are not inexpensive. A lot of parents could afford them, but a lot of them couldn’t,” Royer said.
Jeffcoat monies fund 80 percent of the cost of the class for students on free and reduced lunches.
“If they get a B (grade) we give them the other 10 percent. If they get an A we give them the 20 percent so it’s completely free for the family,” Royer told the board. “You’d be amazed how many kids got up to a year of college done before they left Abilene High School and that was the impetus to go on to college.”
Royer often gets thank you notes from the students who receive dual credit funds, he said. Many of the recipients are the first members of their families to attend college.
The Jeffcoat Foundation has spent $105,000 on that initiative, Royer said.
Jeffcoat funds also help buy meals that Abilene students take home as part of the Food for Kids program while money from other sources pay for the remainder of the county. The Jeffcoat Foundation has spent $103,000 on that program over the past 10 years.
“We have pledged to keep that up so all the kids that need those meals get them,” he said.
Jeffcoat monies also have been used in the schools for items which otherwise might not be funded, including $15,000 for computers; musical instruments at the high school; money to purchase items for the elementary schools’ “stores” used as part of a good behavior reward system; the summer science academy and other projects.
Royer noted those projects are merely “an overview” and do not include everything Bill Jeffcoat’s legacy has helped fund.
“There is still a lot more the foundation will do in the future,” Royer added.
Contact Kathy Hageman at email@example.com.