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July 08, 2014

Gift honors former SC insurance educator

Many successful insurance agents and adjusters, in South Carolina and beyond, attribute much of their success to courses they took at Brewer Insurance Information Service. Now, with a gift to the Darla Moore School of Business, the Brewer family legacy of helping to build great careers in insurance has been extended even further.

The gift, made by Moore School alumnus Barney Brewer (Management ‘73) in honor of his mother, Mary Brewer, provides need-based scholarship support to undergraduate students majoring in business, with preference given to students studying insurance and risk management. Honoring his mother in this way felt right to Barney Brewer for a number of reasons.  “She played such a large role in educating so many people,” he says, “and she has always placed a high value on education and knowledge. And instead of setting up a scholarship as a memorial, my wife and I wanted to do it now, while she can enjoy knowing that students are benefiting from the scholarship.”

Mary Brewer has indeed had an impact on the insurance industry—so much so that Brewer Insurance Information Service was for years more commonly referred to as “the Mary Brewer School.”  Her role as one of the state’s leading insurance educators came about almost by happenstance, but her talent for teaching and her commitment to doing whatever it took to help her students succeed turned the small business she launched in 1981 into a school with locations all around the state.

Mary Brewer was working as executive secretary to the director of the South Carolina Department of Wildlife when she was recruited to serve as executive secretary to the president of American Sentinel Life Insurance Company and then to the position of executive director of the South Carolina Life Underwriters Association.  Over time, she came to realize that the agents she worked with weren’t always being taught everything they needed to know—and she began to develop a curriculum that filled in the gaps. That curriculum evolved into a series of weekend classes that became increasingly popular not just with life insurance agents, but also with adjusters and other types of insurance agents from all over the state and, increasingly, the Southeast.   “There was a difference between what the standard industry tests required people to know and what they really needed to
know to succeed,” Mary Brewer explains.  And as more and more agents realized that, with a little more education, they could significantly accelerate their careers, the classes that had begun as a sideline were taking up more and more of Brewer’s time.

So in 1981 she launched Brewer Insurance Information Service.  “I remember her getting about two hours of sleep each night,” Barney Brewer says. “That’s how hard she worked to start the business.”  She also went above and beyond to support her students, even providing them lunch on test days, for example, so they’d have one less thing to worry about when they needed to focus on passing the test.  “Not all of them could afford lunch,” she says.  “Many of them were in career transition and still had families to support.”  Brewer’s family members recall that she received heartfelt notes on a weekly basis from students who appreciated her many extra kindnesses and personal tutoring.

As Brewer’s students continued to pass industry tests at higher-than-average rates, the company’s reputation grew.  “Mary really was a master at figuring out how people learn and how they could learn very quickly,” says Barney Brewer’s wife Lynn, who also taught at the school.  “She never had a course in education but she was intuitive and just a great teacher.  Managers told us over and over that the people who trained with her were the ones who were really successful.”

Brewer ran the company for almost 25 years, finally selling it to Lynn Brewer and Frank Seeby in 2005 when she was 80 years old.  Now
owned by Frank Seeby, the company still bears the Brewer name and continues to offer the training she pioneered.  Her contributions to the insurance industry have been widely recognized in South Carolina and beyond.  For her the most rewarding aspect of her job was the opportunity to help people make the most of their careers.  “It’s gratifying to see people get jobs and go higher up if they want to,” she says.

The connection between his own education and his career is one reason Barney Brewer wanted to honor his mother with a gift to the Moore School.  Currently in the process of retiring from a long career in financial planning with Ameriprise, he says, “I wouldn’t trade my USC business education for anything, and that’s a debt I should pay back to the university.”

For Mary Brewer, the gift is yet another way to help build the industry she worked so tirelessly to support.  “The Moore School is working with the insurance industry to make Columbia even more of an insurance hub,” she notes, “and this gift is a way of contributing to that energy.”

Long recognized as a top program, the Moore School’s Risk and Insurance Management track is currently ranked among the nation’s top ten.  Gifts like the Brewers’ strengthen the program still further by allowing it to attract and retain the best students regardless of their ability to pay and by allowing students to focus more on their studies instead of having to work their way through school.

In that respect, the Mary Brewer Scholarship is also very much in the spirit of the support Brewer always provided for her own students.

That, says Lynn Brewer, is what makes the gift particularly fitting: “Mary’s legacy will continue through the business, but now also through this scholarship and her story—which is inspirational.”

-Leslie Haynsworth- Marketing & Communications, Darla Moore School of Business