William "Bill" Gravely Underwood, founder of Underwood’s Jewelers of Fayetteville, died Sunday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 90 years old.
The funeral is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville.
Underwood was born on Sept. 22, 1932, in Mountain View, Oklahoma. After growing up in the Great Depression, he earned a degree in horology from Southwestern State College, then served in the Navy from 1952 to 1956.
After the Navy, he moved to Fayetteville to attend the University of Arkansas on the G.I. Bill. He was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business.
While attending the UA, he borrowed $1,000 from his parents and started Underwood’s Jewelers in 1957. In Fayetteville, Underwood met the woman who would become his wife in 1958, LeAnn.
"I had no employees at first," Underwood told InStore, a trade publication for independent jewelers, in December. "My initial budget to start the store was the loan from my parents, plus the GI Bill provided me $110 per month, which I used to pay for everything: inventory, rent, advertising, utilities and eventually part-time help. Hardly enough to get started."
In an interview with Arkansas Business in 2001, Underwood said he settled in Fayetteville because he thought a university town would have an educated population that would appreciate the finest jewelry. He founded his store the same year John Tyson opened his first chicken processing plant, five years before Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart store, and 12 years before the founding of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.
Underwood was in the first class of 29 jewelers nationally to earn the designation of certified gemologist appraiser, the industry’s top title, and was the state's first certified gemologist. He was also involved with the American Gemological Society, serving as its president from 1988 to 1990. He served on numerous national and international diamond and jewelry committees, and received industry awards and honors, and was inducted into the National Jeweler Hall of Fame.
Underwood’s son, Craig, is president of Underwood’s, and his wife, Laura, also works for the company. Their son, Troy, is listed on the company’s website as vice president.
In 2015, the Underwoods donated an undisclosed amount to the campaign to expand the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, of which they were longtime supporters. The expansion’s new plaza on the south of the center on West Street is named for the family.
The Underwoods also made donations to the Sam M. Walton Honor Lab at University of Arkansas and the media room at the Fayetteville Public Library.
Underwood was a member of organizations including the Fayetteville Civil Service Commission, the Dickson Street Improvement District and the Rotary Club. He was a director of First Variable Life Insurance and First National Bank. He was a 32nd degree Mason and longtime member of the Fayetteville Country Club.
In 2004, Underwood was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Walton College of Business at the UA, and he received the Citation of Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2019.
Underwood is survived by his wife; daughter Michelle (Barry) Gass; son Craig (Laura) Underwood; daughter Vicki (Kurt) Nelson; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.