Published: Dec. 16, 2019 By

In her honor, her husband, a marketing exec who helped make Orville Redenbacher a household name, makes $2.5 million gift for scholarships at CU Boulder

Venita VanCaspel lived through the Great Depression in Oklahoma and worked several jobs while in college, and scholarships were invaluable to getting her degree in economics from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1948. Because of a significant gift from her husband, future generations of CU Boulder students can look forward to similar support. 

VanCaspel’s husband, Lyttleton “Lyt” Harris, will donate $2.5 million to fund a scholarship program for CU Boulder economics students in honor of his late wife, who passed away in 2011. Harris signed paperwork to establish the endowment, a planned gift, this fall. 

Lyt Harris standing in front of Old Main

Lyttleton "Lyt" Harris pauses in front of Old Main on campus this year. CU Boulder photo by Glenn Asakawa. At the top of the page is an image of him with the late Venita Van Caspel. Photo courtesy of Lyt Harris.

VanCaspel faced many obstacles growing up in Sayre, Okla., during the dust bowl. She excelled in school, graduated valedictorian of her high school class and went on to become the first in her family to attend college. 

Knowing she would have to earn scholarships and get jobs during school to pay her tuition, she had a respect for and interest in finance, an interest that prompted her to major in economics at CU Boulder. 

“What was interesting is that she was one of the first women to major in economics at CU. And in most of her classes, she was the only female,” Harris said in a recent interview.  “She did very well. She ended up graduating with honors.”

And the honors kept coming. In 1987, Venita won CU’s coveted George Norlin Award, which recognizes outstanding alumni, and she later served for more than a decade on the CU Economics Department’s advisory board.

After graduation, VanCaspel became a successful stockbroker in Houston, Texas, despite the challenges of working in a male-dominated field. To overcome that gender obstacle, she built a client base for herself by giving talks at women’s club luncheons. 

VanCaspel launched her own stock brokerage firm, VanCaspel and Company Inc., in the early 1970s. It eventually became the largest independently owned brokerage firm in Texas.

VanCaspel was an accomplished public speaker, which led her to become an author and TV show host. Her first book, Money Dynamics: How to Build Financial Independence, was published in 1975. 

During her career, she wrote six books on finance and money and investing, two of which were on The New York Times bestseller list.

“Because of the books, PBS got interested in her, and contracted with her to do weekly television shows called ‘The Money Makers,’” said Harris, adding that she had these weekly shows on PBS for seven years.

In 1984, VanCaspel was a recipient of the prestigious Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans, which recognizes those who rise to the top of their professions despite humble beginnings.

Harris himself also enjoyed a storied career. In the 1970s, Harris was a marketing executive with Hunt-Wesson Foods when he noticed a “most unusual” jar of popcorn in the gourmet foods department of a Chicago department store while there on a business trip. Labels on the jars “looked like they had been printed on a mimeograph machine,” and they featured the image of a man with a bow tie who happened to be a popcorn geneticist and grower from Valparaiso, Indiana.

I realized that the kids in college today are going to be the future of our country. And somebody needs to step forward to help those in need through scholarships so that they don't end up owing thousands of dollars in student loan debt after they graduate.” 

Several jars of Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn were purchased and sent to Hunt-Wesson's labs for testing. When the test came back with glowing results, the Hunt-Wesson marketing team met with Redenbacher, and Harris recalled that the conversation went this way:

“You're the expert in growing this wonderful strain of popcorn. We're the consumer product marketing experts. Why don't we get together, and we will make you the Colonel Sanders of the popcorn business,” Harris said.  

"And that's exactly what we did. Within three years after introducing the product nationally, it became the #1 brand of popcorn on the market, and it still enjoys that status today."

Harris was also instrumental in the launch of what was at one time a most unusual product: disposable diapers. He introduced the first disposable diapers in the United States while working as a manager in new product development at Scott Paper Company, and today disposables account for over 95% of the diaper market. 

In 1982, he became CEO of Southwest Management and Marketing Company in Houston, where he later met VanCaspel at an art installation. They had an “instant connection” and married in 1987 in Harris’ home town, Baton Rouge. Harris noted that they were married for 24 years before she passed away “and never had an argument.” 

Together, they loved travel and philanthropy, which included establishing a scholarship program for Northwood University, a private business school in Michigan.  

“We were both very pleased” with the scholarship program, he said. After she passed away, “I started thinking about, well, what am I going to do with our estate, and how am I going to put it to the best use. And education came back to mind, and I said, ‘Well, why don't I do that?’” 

Harris believes in the importance of education and aiding those, like VanCaspel, who are eager to learn but can’t afford tuition. 

“I realized that the kids in college today are going to be the future of our country. And somebody needs to step forward to help those in need through scholarships so that they don't end up owing thousands of dollars in student loan debt after they graduate.”   

Harris will donate the majority of their estate, split evenly, to four colleges: Louisiana State University, University of Mississippi, Northwood University and CU Boulder. 

“I decided to expand the program and to go to my universities, LSU and Ole Miss, and to come to CU where Venita graduated to honor her.” 

Harris’s donation will impact thousands of economics students’ lives for many years. He figures that each of his four endowments should generate about $125,000 for scholarships annually. 

“That’s half a million dollars I'll be giving away in scholarships every year through four universities,” Harris said, smiling. “We're talking about 20 or 30 recipients at each school every year forever.”