“I always thought of Randall as a North Star for his moral probity and sterling character.”
—James T. Laney, Emory University president emeritus
R. Randall Rollins—the 88-year-old visionary businessman, greathearted philanthropist, and longtime champion of Emory—passed away on Monday, August 17, 2020, after a short illness. Rollins immeasurably strengthened the university, including guiding a nascent department of public health to achieve the standing of a top-ranked school. In so doing, his legacy extends beyond the lives he touched directly, rippling into the future, carried by the public health leaders, physicians, theologians, and others who have benefitted from his investments in Emory.
“The impact Randall has made cannot be overstated,” says James Curran, the James W. Curran Dean of the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH). “Countless thousands throughout the world will lead longer, more productive lives because of the investments Randall Rollins made in public health.”
Rollins and his younger brother, Gary, presided over a vast business empire started by their father, O. Wayne Rollins. Yet Rollins remained a private, modest man who never forgot the lessons he learned growing up on a farm in Ringgold, Georgia. Guided by his unwavering belief in hard work, honesty, devotion to family, and giving back, Rollins was the embodiment of the family’s values—leave things better than the way you found them.
“I always thought of Randall as a North Star for his moral probity and sterling character,” says James T. Laney, Emory University president emeritus. “He was a remarkable combination of business acumen and basic goodness, the likes of which we rarely encounter. His presence and wise counsel will be terribly missed in business, church, and philanthropic communities, and none more so than at Emory. Randall will always have the enduring gratitude of all who love the university and of the generations to come who will be beneficiaries of Emory’s services and contributions to society.”
“Now recognized as one of the nation’s leading schools of public health, the worldwide reach of the Rollins School of Public Health would not have been possible without the generosity of Randall Rollins and his family.”
—James W. Curran, James W. Curran Dean of the Rollins School of Public Health
Without question, Emory has advanced its mission in profound ways because of the unparalleled support Rollins gave the university over many years. Witness his critical role in propelling the RSPH, which was named for the Rollins family to honor their generosity, from a fledgling school with a handful of students and faculty to one of the top five schools of public health in the United States in just 30 years. That arc of growth and accomplishment is remarkable, and Rollins was at the heart of it by providing gifts of infrastructure and endowment as well as expert guidance.
The generosity of Rollins continues with a $65 million gift to fund a third RSPH building, which is currently under construction and will bear his name. In 2015, in recognition of his extraordinary commitment to advancing global health, Emory awarded Rollins an honorary degree. As Dean Curran said at the time, “Now recognized as one of the nation’s leading schools of public health, the worldwide reach of the Rollins School of Public Health would not have been possible without the generosity of Randall Rollins and his family.”
Randall Rollins grew up doing chores—including straightening old nails so that they could be reused—around the family farm under the watchful eyes of his parents and grandparents. Though he never graduated college, he got an excellent business education working with his father and uncle in their various enterprises, including the first leveraged buyout in American business history, when the family enterprise borrowed $60 million to purchase Orkin pest control in 1964.
"The Rollins family created a lasting legacy in public health, a field so critically important today. . . . Randall had the vision for a world made better through science applied to improving people’s lives, and he believed that Emory was the place for his vision to be realized.”
—President Gregory L. Fenves
Like his father, Rollins demonstrated enormous business acumen as he and Gary grew the companies their family acquired, including Rollins Inc., a pest control company, RPC Inc., an oil and gas company, and Marine Products, a boat manufacturer. Business associates say he was quick to spot good investment opportunities, focused on continuous improvement, and gifted at nurturing loyal employees. He was famous for working six days a week, a practice he continued until becoming ill.
“The Rollins family created a lasting legacy in public health, a field so critically important today,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “Their generosity and commitment helped catapult our youngest school to be a national and international leader in public health research and education. Randall had the vision for a world made better through science applied to improving people’s lives, and he believed that Emory was the place for his vision to be realized. We will miss him greatly.”
Mary Jo Lechowicz—Margaret H. Rollins Chair in Cancer at Winship Cancer Institute and professor and vice chair for education in the School of Medicine’s Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology—treated Rollins for years and got to know him well. When she would have Orkin technicians in her home, she would tell them she had met their boss at Emory. They would always smile and say they knew him and his family. “That’s the kind of man he was,” says Lechowicz. “He really took the time and effort to get to know people, to know their families.”
Rollins continued and deepened the family tradition of giving back, remaining true to the belief that for those to whom much is given, much is expected. His father made the first connections with Emory through gifts to Candler School of Theology in the 1970s. Both father and son were men of deep faith.
“I interacted with Randall Rollins in church circles as much as I did on campus,” says Jan Love, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and Mary Lee Hardin Willard Dean of Candler School of Theology. “Always gracious and good humored, he was a man of deep discernment not only about business but also about faith. He cared passionately about supporting institutions and groups that made the world a better place for all its inhabitants.”
When the Emory Board of Trustees was launching a new school of public health, Wayne Rollins was quick to voice his support for a building to house it. However, he died unexpectedly in 1991 before the project had left the drawing board. Determined to carry out his vision, Rollins and his family provided funding for the building named for their mother, Grace Crum Rollins.
Under ordinary circumstances, a school founded just 30 years ago would still be finding its footing. However, with Rollins’s focused support of the RSPH, its advancement has been unprecedented and transformative. His gifts included funding for a second building named for Wayne’s mother, the Claudia Nance Rollins Building, as well as unrestricted endowments and scholarships.
“He was an insightful man who knew the right questions to ask at the right time,” says Michael Johns, Emory’s executive vice president for health affairs (1996–2007) and currently a professor of public health and medicine. Johns knew from his many conversations with Rollins how deeply he cared about the public’s health, which is why he embraced the RSPH “so mightily and supported it so generously. Randall was not a proud person, but I think he certainly was proud of what the RSPH achieved, going from a gleam in our eye to one of the most prominent public health schools in the world.”
“His family’s interest in the health of the local and global communities and long involvement with the school of public health, beginning with O. Wayne Rollins’s insight into what a new public health facility would mean to the university, have been fundamental to the overall success of the health sciences at Emory.”
—Jonathan Lewin, executive vice president for health affairs, executive director of the WHSC, and CEO and chair of the board of Emory Healthcare
Generous with his advice and counsel, Rollins served as an Emory trustee for 13 years, from 1988 to 2001. “My business motto—listen, learn, decide, and act—evolved out of my interactions with Randall,” says Johns. Many Emory leaders join Johns in that view of how a relationship with Rollins influenced their leadership style. “In so many ways,” says Dean Curran, “the values that Randall brought as a businessman—being open-minded but tough, always looking for novel solutions to problems, but resolute when it comes to performance and getting the job done—are the same that the faculty and leadership of the RSPH have embraced in bringing the school to such a high point in terms of its reputation and ranking.”
The Rollins family also generously supported the Woodruff Health Sciences Center (WHSC), the School of Medicine, Winship Cancer Institute, Candler, and Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The foundation was instrumental in the construction of the O. Wayne Rollins Research Center, which opened in 1990 and houses laboratories that have fueled discovery in fields including neuroscience, cellular biology, genetics, and immunology. They have funded numerous academic chairs that have enabled Emory to recruit and retain top-level clinicians, teachers, and researchers who, in turn, have expanded studies of innovative treatments and promising medical techniques.
“Randall was a visionary leader and supporter of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, Emory University, and the school that bears his family name,” says Jonathan Lewin, executive vice president for health affairs, executive director of the WHSC, and CEO and chair of the board of Emory Healthcare. “His family’s interest in the health of the local and global communities and long involvement with the school of public health, beginning with O. Wayne Rollins’s insight into what a new public health facility would mean to the university, have been fundamental to the overall success of the health sciences at Emory. Speaking personally, Randall’s wisdom, generosity, humility, work ethic, compassion, and sense of humor were truly inspirational for me, and our time together has made me a better person.”
Another Emory entity whose upward trajectory owes so much to the Rollins family is the Winship Cancer Institute. “Winship would not be where it is today without the influence and generosity of Randall Rollins,” notes Walter J. Curran Jr., Winship executive director and Lawrence W. Davis Professor and chair of Emory’s Department of Radiation Oncology. “The family’s support of Winship includes the creation of two endowed chairs, the R. Randall Rollins Chair in Oncology and the Margaret H. Rollins Chair in Cancer, as well as personal involvement and sponsorship of Winship fundraising events. Randall’s impact on Winship’s success, including through his leadership on the board of the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center Fund, cannot be overestimated.”
Beyond his undisputed business success and legendary philanthropy, Rollins stood for the love of family. He was happiest when he was with his wife of 67 years, Margaret (“Peggy”), and their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, either during weekly family dinners or on the annual family vacation. The couple has six children: Rita Anne Rollins, who passed away in 1970; Richard Randall Rollins Jr.; Pamela Rollins; Robert Rollins; Timothy (Andrea) Rollins; and Amy (Nevin) Rollins Kreisler. They also have 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In always making himself available for service and support to others, Rollins fulfilled his family’s vision of generosity. “I have never known a finer man or a more loyal friend,” says Charles R. Hatcher Jr., WHSC vice president for health affairs (1984–1996). “With his great wealth, he felt a responsibility to do everything he could to make the world a better place. And he did.”
Story by Martha McKenzie and Susan Carini. Photos courtesy of Emory Photo/ Video and the Rollins family. Design by Elizabeth Hautau Karp.