UCLA’s Jim Varney Scholarship pays the actor’s generous legacy forward

 Jim Varney, as the beloved character Ernest P. Worrell, holds a portrait of himself.

Emmy-winning actor and comedic icon Jim Varney played the beloved character Ernest P. Worrell. | Courtesy of Paganomation

Jonathan Riggs | December 20, 2022

The Kentucky-born comedian Jim Varney cared deeply about young people and their dreams.

Millions of kids — and kids at heart — delighted in the onscreen antics of the Emmy-winning actor, in and out of his beloved character of Ernest P. Worrell.

Before he died of cancer in 2000, Varney took his compassion one step further by laying the groundwork for a scholarship to support promising, financial-aid-eligible students from two states that meant a great deal to him personally: Kentucky and Tennessee. Recipients of the Jim Varney Scholarship must also plan to complete an undergraduate degree in the UCLA College and have an interest in the performing arts.

“This is one of UCLA’s few full-ride scholarships, and every single one of the students I’ve worked with who received it has had a phenomenal experience,” said Angela Deaver Campbell, director of the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center. “It’s so special, not just because it is a life-transforming opportunity for students and for their families, but also because we are honoring the final wishes of Mr. Varney, who wanted to make this opportunity possible.”

There have been 11 Varney Scholars so far, including the most recent, Joshua Hays, a current second-year biology major from Louisville, Kentucky whose dream is to become a physician specializing in pediatric orthopedics.

Joshua Hays, Varney Scholar

Joshua Hays, Varney Scholar

“Receiving this scholarship was one of the greatest honors and blessings in my life — I am the fifth of six children, and so the Varney Foundation’s generosity relieves such a burden from my family,” Hays said. “I am and will always be forever grateful to the Varney Foundation’s generosity for making the dreams of some kid from Kentucky a reality. I hope to pay it forward one day, following Mr. Varney’s example in changing lives.”

Over the course of his career, the Shakespearean-trained Varney built an impressive resume that includes more than 3,000 commercials, nine Ernest movies and originating the role of Slinky Dog in the “Toy Story” franchise. His career almost didn’t get started, though, due to an actors’ strike when he first came to Hollywood, forcing Varney to return to Kentucky and earn a living driving a truck.

“Jim always said if he’d had a college education, he could have stuck it out here sooner, and that a college education was the key to achieving your dreams,” said Jane Varney, president of the Varney Foundation, which funds the scholarship. “Jim wanted to pay his success forward and ensure that kids from Kentucky and Tennessee would have the opportunity to make it at a world-class school like UCLA.”

Without exception, that is what each scholarship recipient has done.

“Each year, the Varney Scholars thrive academically, bring diverse artistic expression and follow their passions as a result of these generous awards that honor Jim Varney’s remarkable legacy,” said Adriana Galván, dean of the division of undergraduate education. “We deeply value our longstanding partnership with the Jim Varney Foundation and look forward to many more years of working together to celebrate Jim and foster future generations of bright young change-makers at UCLA.”

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