February 20, 2024

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Cecil O’Brate: the quiet, humble ‘Titan’ of southwest Kansas

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In southwestern Kansas there is a man who came from humble beginnings, worked hard, and became wealthy. 

He never forgot those humble beginnings, however, or the way he pulled himself up by his bootstraps. That man had a heart for youth — particularly youth in foster care — and disliked the way they were left to fend for themselves when they turned 18.

So the man created a foundation and made sure those youths could go to college, and made sure they’d have the tools to break the cycle of poverty and maybe have the life he had.

That man is Cecil O’Brate, and starting at 4 p.m. Central this Sunday, Fox News Business will air a documentary about his life.  A clip of the show is available here.

An unbelievably humble man, now 92, O’Brate was finally willing to allow his story to be told, with this documentary.

Typically, for him, when asked how got where he is, he demurs, saying “You know, I just started a lot of different businesses and made a buck anywhere I could.”

Indeed, O’Brate was born into Depression-era poverty, and simply decided “I knew what it was to be poor and I just knew that I didn’t want to be poor.”

O’Brate turned that decision into action and from farming, to teaching, to owning banks, implement dealers, car dealers, or buying Palmer Tank and entering the energy sector, O’Brate has done a little of everything.

But his crowning achievement, his real legacy, may well be the O’Brate Foundation.

The foundation was born in 2012 when O’Brate was on the board of Youthville, a home for at-risk youth in state custody, in the little unincorporated berg of Wilroads Gardens, just east of Dodge City.

It bothered O’Brate that once those youths “aged out” of the system they were essentially on their own.

“I just didn’t think that they ought to be kicked out on their own at 18,” he said. “So that’s why we started the foundation.”

Youthville has since closed.

From those humble beginnings in 2012 — 2013 was the first full year of operation — the foundation has helped hundreds of at-risk youth become successful.

According to foundation Director Jayre Zimmerman, the foundation takes a holistic approach to help former foster children or disadvantaged youth work toward a better life.

“In 2015, we were able to expand to help students with limited resources,” she said. “So our foundation has three programs. We have an immediate needs or a basic needs assistance program to help students below the federal poverty income level when they hit hard times, you have short term assistance available for housing, food, and clothing if need be. We also have a dual credit scholarship that allows us to help high school students who are taking college classes. 

“And then our main gig is our traditional college scholarship program. We generally have about this year we had 150 scholars, we generally run 150 to 170 students.”

But it’s not a hand out, Zimmerman said, the students are required to take financial literacy classes, maintain part-time employment, and attend an annual summer seminar.

Students must also achieve and maintain a 2.5 GPA. The program is needs-based, not merit-based, and helps with everything from trade school to graduate and postgraduate degrees.

The holistic approach is key, Zimmerman said.

“When the foundation first started he realized he was feeling a lot like he was just sending a cheque,” she said. “And what the students really needed was an adult in their life to help them kind of address the stumbling blocks and all the things that pop up throughout life — but you know — especially when you’re in college juggling a lot. It’s always nice to have an adult that can be there for you.”

Zimmerman said she was excited about the documentary.

“Our scholars are always so interested to know more about the man and woman that help them achieve their goals,” she said. “While we provide opportunities throughout the year for our scholars to interact with Mr. & Mrs. O’Brate, we are most excited that our young adults will have the opportunity to hear about Ceil and Frances’ struggles and successes directly from them in this documentary.

There are some amazing stories from these students as well — and an impressive success rate — more than 150 of the 420 students who have entered the program have gone on to graduate.

“We had a young man on scholarship who was from north-central Kansas. He is originally from the Kansas City area, and had been put into the foster care system in rural north-central Kansas,” Zimmerman said. “We had him on scholarship to help him with his Juris Doctorate, )and) graduated from Liberty University. He then went to work for the Kansas Attorney General’s office and he now actually has a (Judge Advocate General) appointment in Washington State. 

There is a theme of service, Zimmerman said, that runs through the O’Brate Scholars

“It is almost a right of passage that an O’Brate Scholar, at one point or another during his or her time with us, says to a staff member, or writes to Mr. O’Brate to say, ‘one day I hope to help someone the way that you have helped me.’”

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