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Your Advocate: Education changed Dad's life, broke family cycle

By Chris Cobler
Aug. 27, 2012 at 3:27 a.m.
Updated Aug. 28, 2012 at 3:28 a.m.

Chris Cobler, Victoria Advocate Editor

Dad was born at home with a piece of skin covering his face.

His mother said the doctor called this a caul and indicated the skin had some meaning, such as good luck, intelligence and even the ability to predict the future. Although she repeated the story for many years, my father, as a child, never saw much of a future for himself beyond the wrong side of the tracks in Topeka, Kan.

He hated the first few grades of school. In the second grade, a teacher slapped him on the face because he and some other boys were chasing girls around the playground. That teacher's angry face burns in his memory almost 80 years later. He flunked second grade.

In fifth grade, a different teacher provided his first shot of confidence in school. This teacher knew Dad had learned to divide by fractions and asked him to go to the chalkboard to demonstrate to the rest of the class.

Along with this boost from a mentor, societal changes helped my dad. Born in 1930, he was one of 11 children during a time when students commonly left school after completing the sixth grade. This era was changing at the same time as my father was beginning to advance in school.

Before his birth, his family had moved from the farm to Topeka, where his father worked various hard-labor jobs and leased a small acreage next to the Kansas River just east of "Little Russia." One of my dad's chores as a 10-year-old was to carry two buckets of garbage from their home to feed the pigs each morning before school.

Because the family had moved to town, Dad could continue in school. All of his seven older siblings, born a little too soon for this change, dropped out before completing high school. Dad was the first in his family to graduate; his three younger brothers followed.

Still, Dad didn't see college as any sort of reality. At 18, he landed a job at Morrell Meat Packing, pulling carts of meat around for a year and a half. One day, he looked at two old guys -- they must have been 40 -- walking down the hall and thought, "These guys have been here for 20 years and don't make make much more than me."

He quit the job and decided education could lead to a better life. Even still, he couldn't imagine a university as an option, so he enrolled in a one-year business college program and learned bookkeeping.

A few months later, he was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Korean War. For the first time, Dad realized he was intelligent after he scored the second-highest on an IQ test given in boot camp and was chosen as the outstanding member of his platoon. His business training kept him from the front lines; instead, he was put in charge of accounting for the 1st Marine Air Wing officers' clubs in Korea and Japan.

The Marines offered Dad a commission to stay in the service, and his fellow servicemen warned him he'd starve to death out on his own. By then, though, Dad was convinced he needed to complete college and become a certified public accountant.

The GI bill and incredible determination helped Dad achieve his dreams, even though he already was married with a small child when he left the Marines. While the GI bill provided a third of his income, Dad worked multiple jobs to make it through Washburn University and later opened his own CPA firm.

As a kid, I heard these stories, but they remained a long way from my reality. My three siblings and I never doubted we would go to college -- it was expected. My two children, both in high school, carry forward this gift.

I could go on a long time about my hero -- he found the strength to carry on even after his wife had to be hospitalized with a mental illness and later left him. He took sole custody of their children and found the love of his life -- they will celebrate 50 years of marriage on Valentine's Day 2014.

But I share his story to explain why I believe in your Advocate's education project, "A Community Commitment." Countless people have stories to share about how education changed or is changing their lives. During the coming year, we hope to celebrate those with you and inspire more to make a difference.

This project can seem overwhelming in scope, but I think of Dad when pushing forward.

Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at ccobler@vicad.com or at 361-574-1271.

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