George Mason University

News at Mason

New scholarship reinforces an old bond

August 10, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Robert Sowell and Ricky Dillard became best friends at George Mason University in the early 1980s.

Sowell, BA Speech Communication ’86, a baseball player, and Dillard, BS Public Administration ’88, a 6-foot-4 forward on the men’s basketball team, somehow finagled their way into being roommates, an arrangement that athletes from different sports rarely enjoyed.

So close was their bond that when Dillard, a civil highway inspector and Loudoun County resident deeply involved with his church, died from stomach cancer in May 2001 at the age of 39, Sowell pledged to one day create a Mason scholarship in his friend’s name.

That bucket-list item became a reality this year when Sowell pledged $25,000 to create the Robert Sowell and Ricky Dillard Endowed Scholarship, which supports first-generation college student-athletes at Mason.

“For me, personally, it was a promise I made to myself,” said Sowell, who is senior vice president of community relations at Apple Federal Credit Union. “But I also felt good, emotionally, because I knew this would be an opportunity to keep Ricky’s legacy going at George Mason, too.”

Dillard played four years for Mason, averaging 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 86 games. Sowell said Dillard once received an invitation from the NFL’s Washington Redskins to try out as a free agent tight end.

“He was an all-around athlete, and the guy could swim like a fish,” Sowell said. “I was in awe of his physical abilities.”

Dillard’s older brother, Sherman, said he was “floored” when Sowell told him about the scholarship.

“It’s admirable for Robert to give back to the university this way,” said Sherman, an assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Iowa. “Doing something like this speaks volumes of Robert’s character and altruistic philosophy.”

“We are so thankful for the generous endowment created by alumni-athlete Robert Sowell,” Mason Athletic Director Brad Edwards said. “Robert has been a tremendous friend of George Mason athletics for many years. He has taken on leadership roles as a member of our Patriot Club advisory board and Baseball Stadium Renovation Campaign Committee. Always a Patriot, he continues to cheer on our current athletes at games and as a men’s basketball season ticket holder. His commitment to Mason and willingness to give back enables us to make a profound impact in our student-athletes’ lives.”

Sowell, who is also a member of Mason’s Science and Technology Campus advisory board, said the scholarship also speaks to the commitment he and Ricky had to succeed.

“We both came from rural regions,” said Sowell, who also was a first-generation student. “One thing we always said was we can’t go back home and work in the factories like family and friends. We have to use our scholarships as a way to get good jobs. We always valued that Mason education, so we wanted to make a legacy.”