Basketball, Rock Bands & World Travel: Bertis Downs ’78 Supports Life-Changing Study Abroad Opportunities for Today’s Wildcats

Bertis (left) joined R.E.M. (pictured are Mike Mills and Michael Stipe) on a promo tour. The photo was taken after an interview with Dan Rather, circa 2018.

Bertis (left) joined R.E.M. (pictured are Mike Mills and Michael Stipe) on a promo tour. The photo was taken after an interview with Dan Rather, circa 2018.

Bertis Downs’ career took off in a Georgia record store, where he met R.E.M. co-founder Peter Buck. But his interest in the music business began at .   

Downs ’78 grew up hearing about from his father, Bertis Downs III ’53, and quickly inherited his dad’s love of basketball. When their family moved to Taipei, Taiwan, for his father’s missionary work, Downs remembers gathering around the radio, listening to the Wildcats play from across the world. 

Downs’ father died in a plane crash in the summer of 1964, and his family relocated to Richmond, Virginia, shortly after.

“I grew up very proud of my dad, but without knowing him very well,” Downs said. “Later, I decided I really wanted to go to . Being there made me feel especially connected to the memory of him.”

is the throughline that connects Downs’ past with his present. With the Bertis E. Downs III and Eugene M. Downs, Sr. Education Abroad Fund, he’s shaping the experiences of a new generation of Wildcats by providing affordable and accessible study abroad opportunities.

The fund is named for Downs’ father and for his uncle Gene, a role model and fellow basketball fan who cemented Downs’ love of travel and adventure.

“I didn't do any international travel at because in my time there, our study abroad options were limited,” he said. “I didn’t want to uproot my campus life to go to Germany or France for a year. Now, students have so many more options to get a taste of international travel without sacrificing their college experience.”

Traveling With R.E.M.

For more than 40 years, Downs has enjoyed a career as the long-time lawyer, advisor and manager to the groundbreaking alternative rock band R.E.M. 

His interest in the music industry was first piqued as a student, where he worked at WDAV, then a student-run radio station. A fan of Neil Young and the Allman Brothers Band, he enjoyed finding up-and-coming new bands to play on-air. As an upperclassman, he served on the Union Board concert committee and helped bring shows to campus.

“I was always a student of the game,” he said. “I was interested early on in the process of bands becoming successful both as artists and as businesses.”

After graduating, he attended law school at the University of Georgia, originally planning to become a public service lawyer. During this time, he made frequent visits to Wuxtry Records in Athens, where he would buy Neil Young records and talk music with one of the store’s employees, Peter Buck, who would soon become R.E.M.’s co-founder and lead guitarist. 

Through Buck and the university’s concert committee, Downs met drummer Bill Berry and saw R.E.M. play live for the first time. 

After graduating in 1981, he began helping the band navigate their first legal contracts, offering his advice as he learned more about entertainment law. Over time, as their success grew, what started as a volunteer hobby turned into a full-time job.

“I had luck on my side and the benefit of a band that kept writing good songs,” Downs said.

“Two years into their career, I knew that they could do this. They didn’t just write one good album — they kept going.”

Two months before releasing their debut studio album, Murmur, Downs helped coordinate a show in the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room. Just three months later, the band returned to to celebrate their album release with a much bigger show in Love Auditorium. 

“As an alum, that was special for me,” Downs said. “I remember feeling like we’d really made it. I had no idea what was to come.” 

Over the next three decades, R.E.M. released 15 studio albums, played multiple international tours and secured their spot as one of America’s most influential rock bands.  

Downs mostly worked from Athens during the first decade of the band’s success, but in 1995, he joined them more frequently on the road. Traveling became an integral part of his career during these years and influenced his decision to support international travel opportunities at . 

“I see the importance of travel in students' lives,” he said. “I was able to go to partially because of the Thompson Honor Scholarship. I was a work-study student throughout my four years, and having that support for my education changed my life. I’ve always felt an obligation to give back the same way I was given to. It feels like a very fair exchange.”

Since its creation in 2020, the Downs Education Abroad Fund has supported seven student study abroad experiences across the globe, sending scholars to places like Denmark, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and Botswana. 

Taeree Kim and her program-mates in Patagonia

Taeree Kim and her program-mates in Patagonia

Taeree Kim ’24: Puerto Natales, Chile

Taeree Kim ’24 spent this past summer in Puerto Natales, Chile, at the School for Field Studies. Through group excursions and field exercises, she studied conservation, ecological systems and the effects of climate change on the southern Patagonia region during the harsh winter months.

“As a college athlete on the cheerleading team with a work-study position on campus, studying abroad during the semester was not an option that was recommended for me,” Kim said. “There were too many factors that would be a point of stress on top of the general fears of living in another country. However, I didn’t want to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Kim’s program allowed her to travel throughout the region with professors and guides, taking classes on mountaintops, in caves, on top of glaciers and inside greenhouses. A psychology major with a minor in public health, these field studies combined her interest in social patterns with her interest in environmental studies. 

She learned from experts on a range of environmental topics, including the water systems of Patagonia’s glacial rivers, reforestation and conservation efforts, and the impact of tourism on Indigenous land.

“Studying abroad in Chile helped me hone in on my personal and professional development with a focus in conservational public health,” Kim said. “Without the financial support from the Downs Scholarship Grant, I would have never made lifelong friendships within my cohort or had the chance to explore Patagonia. I want to express my unwavering gratitude for this incomparable opportunity to live in another country without financial burden.”

Isaac Franks ’24: Stirling, Scotland

Isaac Franks ’24 chose Arcadia Abroad’s summer program in Stirling, Scotland, where he studied literature and creative writing amidst the beautiful Scottish landscape. Franks’ family spent some time living in the UK when he was younger, and he was eager to go back as an adult. 

“When I began exploring the abroad programs that had to offer, the UK always clung to the back of my mind,” Franks said. “Stirling University is a modern institution in a small and historic town, hemmed in by gorgeous nature. Their course catalog fascinated me, especially the writing and culture offerings. I wanted to return to my most vivid memories of childhood, and create them all over again as an eager adult.”

Franks loved taking writing workshops at and wanted to use his time in Scotland to learn more about how to craft a story. He learned effective characterization, dialogue and worldbuilding in his short story writing class, and in his literary analysis course he learned to apply these skills to the science fiction genre. 

In his free time, Franks visited historical and natural sites like Loch Lomond, Scone Palace and the Trossachs National Park. He found like-minded friends from across the world and immersed himself in Scottish culture through food, dance and community.

“I am extremely grateful to the donors who support the Downs Grant. Without their generosity, I couldn’t have done any of this,” Franks said. “My background as a student on significant financial aid has helped guide my decision to apply for Teach For America, where I hope to help underprivileged schools give a quality education to kids who want it.”

Bertis Downs IV ’78 encourages additional donors to deepen the fund’s impact. If you would like to help provide international travel and study abroad experiences for students, please visit  and select "other" to designate your gift to the Bertis E. Downs III and Eugene M. Downs, Sr. Education Abroad Fund.