The Fultons are experts in money.
They know how to give it and yet continue to grow it through their home development company and their Big and Tall retail stores.
Ira Fulton, 74, and his wife, Mary Lou Fulton, 72, have donated millions to higher education institutions, including Arizona State and Brigham Young universities, making them among the top philanthropists in the country.
Ira learned his first business and charity lessons early. He recalls that his mother would sell burgers — a dime each — to high school students in Tempe so she could feed the family.
If someone was penniless and hungry, she would feed them.
“My mother never turned anybody away,” said Ira, who now lives in Ahwatukee Foothills. “She taught me stability and charity.”
He learned harsher lessons as he grew older. As a news carrier for The Arizona Republic from age 11 to 23, Ira learned that some customers, particularly college students, didn’t want to pay for the deliveries.
“Who taught me (business)?” he said. “The people who took advantage of me.”
Ira studied at ASU in the early 1950s and was a guard on the football team. He never finished college. A self-assured young man, he was determined to succeed in business.
“I wasn’t going to make any money by being a teacher,” he said.
Back then, teachers earned $3,700 a year. “I was making three times that with my paper and distributorship,” he said.
He married Mary Lou Henson, another Valley native who was the daughter of a newspaper businessman. Ira then worked for National Cash Register and pushed his way into becoming the top salesman of the year. He then went on to create his own companies.
In 1974, he became a consultant for Eagleson’s Big and Tall in California. It was on the verge of bankruptcy, but Ira purchased the company and expanded it. Sales jumped into the millions. At the same time, he started his development firm, Fulton Homes.
During that time, he and his wife had three children: Lori, Greg and Doug. Mary Lou helped Ira run his businesses while raising their children. She also continued to pursue her teaching degree at ASU. After taking classes over 17 years, she finally graduated in 1975. Her husband called her “the eternal student.”
With their children grown, the couple are getting more involved in charity work, setting up scholarships and endowments, including the new Mary Lou Fulton Chair at the ASU College of Education.
Mary Lou and Ira say they are “as one.”
“I couldn’t imagine where I’d be today without my husband,” she said.