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By Jenny Wilson

January 02, 2013

The University of Hartford has received a $2.3 million gift from the estate of a pioneering Hartford businesswoman and former trustee that will provide crucial financial assistance to needy students.

The gift from the estate of Marion A. Bills -- the first female officer at a Hartford insurance company -- will be used to provide need-based financial aid for deserving students. At private institutions like the University of Hartford, where tuition alone is about $30,000 a year, the difficult economy has fueled a growing demand for financial assistance.

"The need for financial aid for all students seeking it is extraordinary at any and all institutions," said Christine Pina, vice president for institutional advancement at the University of Hartford. "Certainly, at a time when families need additional help and students need additional help, gifts like this are crucial."

The gift from Bills, the former assistant secretary and director of personnel research at Aetna, could fund anywhere from two full to 10 to 20 partial scholarships at the university.

Bills was also a former trustee of Hillyer College, which eventually joined with other institutions to become the University of Hartford.

A Michigan native, Bills was a graduate of the University of Michigan and Bryn Mawr College. She retired from Aetna in 1955 and died in 1970 at age 80. Bills never married.

Pina says that Bills' connection with the University of Hartford makes the gift particularly meaningful. "Dr. Bills was a supporter of the university through her lifetime and believed in us and what was happening for students here so much that she wanted to continue her philanthropy after she passed away."

Her parting gift -- which gave the university any undistributed income left after the death of her nephews -- is crucial in helping meet students' financial needs.

"This gift is going to help us meet needs that otherwise we may not have met," said Pina, who explained that the university doesn't always have the resources to meet financial aid demand. Students seeking aid often have to piece together family contributions, work study jobs, and, if available, institutional aid.

Bills' legacy is not limited to the university, but extends into the greater Hartford area as well. In 1926, only six years after women gained the right to vote, she was hired at Aetna, becoming the first female officer at a Hartford insurance company.

"Marion Bills was hired by Aetna at a time when women who worked for the company were required to use different entrance doors to the building than the men," said Susan Millerick, a spokeswoman for Aetna. Millerick said Bills was responsible for ensuring pay equity at Aetna and encouraging the company to hire college-educated women.

"Marion Bills was the first woman to walk through the front doors of Aetna and in turn she changed the policy that allowed other women to walk through the front door," said Millerick.

According to Pina, Bill's legacy in establishing a path for women is what makes the gift so meaningful.

"The fact that this came from a woman is really spectacular," said Pina, who says the university wants women considering philanthropic donations to think about how they can leave their mark. "I think the fact that she's a woman who chose to use her wealth to impact the next generation and many generations to come is really admirable."

University of Hartford President Walter Harrison said he hopes the gift fuels a new generation of leaders.

"Through her wonderful bequest, Marion Bills has left a legacy that reflects her distinguished career as one of the earliest women leaders of the insurance industry in Hartford," said University of Hartford President Walter Harrison. "The Marion Bills scholarships that her gift has created will help provide a University of Hartford education to deserving students for years and years to come."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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