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Brothers with a passion for Georgia

Unique gifts from George and Jack Fontaine create a program in music business and an alcohol education center for UGA students

by Kelly Simmons

Like many siblings, George and Jack Fontaine shared a lot of experiences. Older by nearly two years, George charted courses that Jack often followed. Both brothers attended UGA, but the outcomes were vastly different. Despite the contrast, each brother developed a strong affection for UGA, a loyalty that would outlast triumph and tragedy and eventually induce them to establish separate legacies at UGA.

George Fontaine (BBA ’76) came to UGA in 1972, fresh out of military high school in Chattanooga and tasting freedom for the first time. Raised on Lookout Mountain, he grew up cheering for the Tennessee Volunteers until the summer he went to camp at UT and decided he didn’t like Knoxville. He chose Georgia instead.

George pledged Phi Delta Theta and became its social chairman, booking bands for the fraternity’s house parties and praying people would be sober enough to show up after the football games. By the time he left Athens in 1977 and headed to Houston to work for the family business, he had finished school, gotten married and helped re-launch the Georgia Theater as a music venue.

Jack Fontaine (M ’79) enrolled at UGA in 1975. He also pledged Phi Delta Theta. He, too, was a part of the social scene, and it became his downfall. Addicted to alcohol and drugs, he left school after two and a half years to join George in Houston.

Years later, the Fontaine brothers would return to Athens with their teenage sons —prospective freshmen—in tow. Seeing the campus again rekindled memories and the love each of them held for the school. In the coming months, the brothers left more than their sons at Georgia. They gave extraordinary gifts to UGA that played on their greatest passions.

A simple life

It’s a steamy day in June and the Fontaine brothers are eating at a Thai restaurant near their west Houston homes, which are just a mile or so apart. Sweat beads on Jack’s forehead from his favorite dish, Tiger Cried, beef with spicy green sauce. George ribs him good-naturedly, something Jack has gotten used to as the younger brother.

They have been business partners since college, first with the family company and now as owners of a successful Red Bull distributorship. Friends as well, they spend a lot of time together outside of work, hunting dove and quail, and cheering the Astros at Minute Maid Park or the Georgia Bulldogs on television.

Though older, George is the shorter of the two, with twinkling eyes and a crooked smile, like his mother’s, that his wife Celia teases him about. Jack is leaner and more solemn. Shy by nature, as a boy he spent Sunday mornings in a church bathroom crawlspace rather than go to a Sunday school class where he’d been forced to sing a solo.

“The teacher caught me talking in class and she made me sing from a hymn book,” Jack vividly recalls. “It took 10 minutes. I never went back to Sunday school again.”

Growing up in and around Chattanooga, George and Jack never wanted for much. The boys’ great grandfather, John Lupton, was one of three Chattanooga investors who were awarded Coca-Cola bottling franchises in the early 1900s. As sales of the soda flourished the family prospered with bottling plants in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Denver and Phoenix, and later additional markets were acquired in Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. The family sold the company to Coca-Cola in 1986.

But despite their wealth, the boys’ greatest pleasures growing up were simple. They hunted, fished and camped on Lookout Mountain, combing the hillside for relics from the Civil War.

One of George’s most memorable gifts from his grandfather was a transistor radio. Just five years old, George would fall asleep with the radio pressed against his ear, listening to Johnny Cash, James Brown and the Beatles. He saw Brown live in concert when he was in 8th grade. Not long after he saw the Allman Brothers.

“That was it for me,” he says.

Once at UGA, he thrived on the Athens music scene, and booking bands for fraternity parties took him deeper into it. Just before graduation in December 1976, a friend who shared his musical tastes came to him with a bold idea—to lease the shuttered Georgia Theatre and turn it into a concert hall. He threw himself into the project, working days selling stereos and albums at a local record store, and evenings and weekends planning for the re-emergence of the theater.

“I just loved Athens like no place I’ve ever been in my life,” he says.

By then he had married Celia, his high school sweetheart, who had moved to Athens after graduating from Tennessee and was teaching at St. Joseph Catholic School. They were there just a few months before George’s family decided he needed to put his business administration degree to better use and he was sent to Houston to work for the family business. His first job was cleaning out beverage displays in groceries and convenience stores.

He and Celia left Athens before the theater opened.

But while George Fontaine had left the music scene, the music bug still had him.

In 1995, he partnered with a friend to start an independent record label. A few years later, the company merged with New West Records, out of Minneapolis. The label had some small artists but soon hooked a big fish—Delbert McClinton, who won a Grammy for his first album produced by New West.

“He gave us the clout we needed,” George says. Soon New West had a cast of well-known artists including Dwight Yoakam, John Hiatt and the Drive-By Truckers.

Addiction, sobriety, then a tragedy

Jack Fontaine often followed in his older brother’s footsteps. He too fell in love with the Athens social scene. But the temptations of a college town and fraternity life were too great. He stopped studying and going to class and by 1978 had dropped out.

“I was mature enough to be an addict but was not mature enough to handle college,” Jack says.

Like his brother, Jack moved to Houston and went to work on the bottom rung of the family business, riding shotgun in a delivery truck to learn the routes and the routine before getting a route of his own. He met Nancy in 1980 and they married less than a year later. He was still drinking and doing drugs when their first son, John, was born in 1984.

His life was unmanageable.

“It did cost me college; it almost cost me my marriage,” he says.

By 1987 Jack had hit bottom and was willing to ask for help. He entered a treatment center and returned to Houston clean and sober, the addictions no longer a part of his life. His head was clear, his body clean. The time he’d spent nursing hangovers or looking for a dealer were put to better use—time spent with family or on his business. “When you’re not looking over your shoulder, when you’re not hampered by unmanageability, you’re open to focus,” Jack says. “The doors open up in front of you. I’d never felt better, never been happier, never been as productive.”

But alcohol wasn’t through with Jack. In December 2000, he suffered the ultimate loss—his oldest son, John.

John Fontaine, then 16, got into a car with a friend who had been drinking. The friend lost control of the car and hit a tree, throwing John, who wasn’t belted in, to the pavement. He died instantly.

It was an unthinkable horror for Jack and Nancy, who had spent long hours talking to the oldest of their three children about the dangers of alcohol. “Don’t drink and drive,” they had told him. “Don’t ever get in a car with someone who has been drinking.”

The days after the accident were a blur as family and friends moved in and out of the house. Teenage cousins and friends gathered to mourn and celebrate John—a fun-loving boy whose self-confidence was a source of wonder to his father. John entertained sick children as Wilbur the pig in a children’s theater production of “Charlotte’s Web,” and at age 11 during a summer fishing trip he chatted easily with an unexpected visitor on deck—former President George Bush—while Jack, star struck, remained tongue-tied and terrified in the galley.

A timely decision

Just four years after John’s death, and 27 years after leaving UGA, Jack returned to campus with his second son, Harrison, a high school senior who hoped to enroll at UGA the following summer. Jack remembered the demons from his college years and thought about John. How many more students would stay in school if they knew the warning signs of alcoholism and addiction, he wondered. How many more would live to graduate if they knew the dangers of drinking and driving? Wouldn’t it be great for these 18-and 19-year olds to know how much better their lives would be in 20 years if they made the right decisions now?

“It’s what keeps me sober every day,” he says. “Thinking about what I have to lose.”

Jack knew he had to do something substantial for UGA to try and keep kids from going down the same road he had, or worse, ending up like John. After much discussion, he and Nancy decided to endow a new program at UGA to better educate students about the dangers of alcohol.

“If I had approached or confronted this personal problem in my early years I would have a Georgia diploma today,” Jack wrote in a letter to UGA outlining the gift. In February, UGA announced the John Fontaine Jr. Center for Alcohol Awareness and Education, made possible by a $2 million gift from Jack and Nancy Fontaine.

The gift could not have come at a better time for the university, which has struggled to address the increasing problem of excessive and binge drinking, particularly among underage first-year students. In January, a freshman died after a night of excessive partying on and off campus.

Vice President for Student Affairs Rodney Bennett says the problem likely is more severe than university officials even realize. “I don’t know that we fully understand the depth of what this work is going to be about,” Bennett says. “We’re so fortunate Nancy and Jack were willing to trust us with the resources they gave us.”

“It just felt right”

In the meantime, George too found that he wanted to give back to the school where his third and youngest, Cartter, is now a freshman. His oldest son and namesake graduated from UGA with a journalism degree in 2004; during George Jr.’s senior year, George and Celia made a permanent commitment to the area, buying a 2,000-acre farm fronting the Broad River in Elberton.

“I didn’t realize how beautiful the land was around that area,” George says.

A chance meeting between George and Nashville songwriter Bruce Burch (BSEd ’75) led to an even greater investment—this time in UGA. Burch had been talking to Terry College of Business Dean George Benson about starting a music business program in partnership with the School of Music. Benson agreed it was a good idea given Athens’ music history, Atlanta’s growing hip hop industry and the music business in Georgia, which is approaching $2 billion.

They just needed someone to pay for it. George gave the school $500,000 of his own money and $250,000 from his family’s foundation to start the certificate program. It launched with 27 students in January and Burch, who’s now in Athens, expected 50 more students to enroll in August.

“We’re very excited about this,” Benson says. “We think this program not only can help give students a leg up in the industry, but the city of Athens as well.”

UGA President Michael Adams praised the Fontaines for recognizing specific needs at the university and doing something to address them. “They put their money where their mouths and their hearts are,” he says.

For the Fontaine brothers, the gifts are a legacy to the university that they hope will outlast themselves, their sons and their grandchildren.

“It just felt right,” George says. “Reconnecting here with my kids here at the same time makes it even more special.”

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Click on image to enlarge

A childhood photo of George (left) and Jack Fontaine shows them in their Lookout Mountain home with their dog, a Boxer named Nails.

George (left) and Jack Fontaine

George (left) and Jack relax in the shade outside George's Houston home. Photo by John Lucas

George and Celia Fontaine pose in front of the Georgia Theatre during a spring trip to Athens. George helped relaunch the old theater as a music venue. Photo by Rick O'Quinn

Jack and Nancy have a house full of memories of John, including his wooden high school locker, covered in messages written by classmates after he died. Photo by John Lucas

John at age 15, less than a year before his death.