Colvin family gives $1 million start to SCCC Allied Health Center
The father of four sons, Navy veteran of the Korean War, an oil patch hand, and self-made businessman, William “Bill” Colvin knew how to apply sweat equity to big dreams. But when he was ready to retreat from the pressures of the world, Colvin knew where to go: Rollins, Montana, on Flathead Lake. For 40 years, Colvin developed a 40-acre mountainside he purchased and came to know intimately as “his” corner of the world.
Now, the fruits of those labors have resulted in a $1 million gift to fund construction of the Colvin Family Allied Health Center on the campus of Seward County Community College. It’s a gift that contains love on a grand scale — love of place, love of family, and love of community.
“Dad liked to tell the story of how he found the place,” said Kent Colvin, who’s taken on CEO duties at High Plains Pizza, the multi-state, million-dollar business his dad founded. “He was up there with Dick Godfrey, our accountant, after looking in on some of our stores in Missoula. They drove over the ridge where there’s a sign saying ‘Behold the Flathead.’ Not long after, Dad told the landlord of the vacation place, ‘I’d be interested in finding some place up there.’”
Once he found the right piece of land, “he manicured the mountainside, and improved the landscape in his slow and steady way,” Kent recalled. “He’d be out walking and say, ‘a scree would look beautiful here.’” Over time, the connection between the businessman and the landscape deepened, and Bill lived there half the year.
When his father died, Kent said the family slowly came to see that they didn’t need the entire parcel of land, with its two homes, for use by six people. To understand how and why they decided what to do, you have to go back five decades and revisit the Colvin family history.
In his spacious, vaulted office at High Plains Pizza headquarters in Liberal, Kent looks at ease in a plaid shirt and khakis.
“We’ve never been an extravagant family,” he says, motioning at the display shelf on the north wall of the room. Rather than costly, carefully selected corporate-suite objects, the shelves are filled with a mixture of international awards from the Pizza Hut Corporation and knick-knacks given to Kent and his wife, Molly, by the student athletes and young professionals they’ve mentored. A professional portrait of Kent’s mother, Virginia, occupies the very front of the first shelf. Locally renowned for her acceptance of others and generous spirit, Virginia Colvin’s photograph radiates calm warmth. Yet a gritty work ethic upheld that gentle exterior.
“Mom and Dad moved to Liberal in 1956, and Dad worked in the oil field for Continental Emsco, as a tool pusher,” Kent said. In those days, Liberal was a bit of a boom town, surging to prominence with widespread oil drilling and the newly-opened Hugoton Gas Field. Opportunities abounded, and in similar fashion, the Colvin family grew. Their oldest son, Kent, was soon joined by Mike, Greg, and Tracy. When Kent was 7 years old, his father began to look for more personal opportunities.
“He went into business with Norman Blankenship, who worked in the oil patch and was also looking for something else to bring in more income,” Kent said. “Norman had seen this new business in Wichita – a Pizza Hut.”
The two men visited the Pizza Hut, signed a franchise agreement for the 18th Pizza Hut franchise on a napkin, and set about finding used equipment, and a location for their venture. In 1962, they opened the first Pizza Hut in Liberal, in a business complex on Pancake Ave.
“When they opened that restaurant the first day, they realized they had no drawer cash,” Kent said. “They’d invested everything they had, so they wrote a hot check for $10 and hoped they would make that back before the check bounced.” With Virginia waiting tables, the fledgling pizza place made good that first day, and for many thereafter.
Soon, the partners opened a second location in Dodge City, and then two more in Amarillo.
“From there, my dad continued to slowly grow at a pace of one store a year,” Colvin said. His philosophy was, “If you’ve got one more than you can operate to the standard, then you’ve got one too many.”
Within four years, the Pizza Hut business had become so successful, Bill Colvin got out of the oil field. From then on, Kent and his brothers grew up along with the franchises.
“Roughly 50 years ago, I started in the store, sweeping and mopping, cleaning up,” said Colvin. “I moved along to where I learned to wash dishes, slice meat, make dough, bake pizzas … and eventually, manage a store, and a region.
“This is the only job I ever wanted, and the only job I ever had.”
Colvin and his brothers Mike and Greg share ownership of the pizza corporation their parents started, which now spans seven states and operates nearly 100 stores. As President, Kent aims to follow his father’s core strategy, which is to grow through careful planning, “bringing all of your people along with you,” he said. One of those is his son, Kevin, who has served as High Plains Pizza’s director of marketing for 12 years.
The middle generation of the Colvins, who grew up working in Pizza Hut stores, relishes seeing the next wave of young workers learn the trade, and –– more important, Kent noted — the connections between opportunity, hard work, and personal responsibility.
“Pizza Hut is, a lot of times, the first job that kids have, and so you have a very important role in helping shape their work habits,” he said. “If you’re in it strictly for the money, and the relationships don’t matter, no one benefits.”
On a larger scale, High Plains Pizza’s founding family believes in community involvement. That commitment was solidified in the early 1990s, when the company had clearly outgrown its corporate offices at the corner of Kansas Ave. and 10th Street.
“We had a discussion, as a family,” Colvin said. “At that point, we had 50-some restaurants, and we knew, ‘We can move our headquarters wherever we want to.’ But what came out of that discussion was the acknowledgement that this is home. All of our friends were here.”
Virginia Colvin had begun to increase the family and corporate involvement with Seward County Community College, and as plans for construction of a new headquarters building solidified, the family matriarch offered a suggestion. What if the family donated the building they’d outgrown to SCCC, for use as an adult education center?
“The idea was that it would allow the college to provide a more intimate class delivery to students who might feel intimidated by the entire college campus, or who didn’t have transportation to drive there,” Colvin said. The family agreed, and the Colvin Adult Learning Center was born.
Virginia’s notion was spot-on. More than 20 years later, students from all walks of life, of all ages, and from 34 different countries stream into the modest stucco building on Kansas Avenue to learn English, complete TED diplomas, take citizenship classes, and master basic education prerequisites for college entry. In terms of students per square foot, it is the busiest of any site at SCCC.
Kent’s passion veered toward the Saints Athletic program.
“I really believe that sports is an incredible way of tying a community together,” he said. “Back in the 1990s, when Jim Littell was coaching women’s basketball, I remember thinking, ‘I need to meet this new coach,’ because it was clear to me that he was impressive, and he was building something exceptional.”
Sure enough, the two men found common ground, “and we’re still the best of friends,” Colvin said. Colvin recounts vivid memories of the two brainstorming ways to build the program, and build momentum for Saints Athletics in Liberal and the wider sports community.
“We sat around and said, ‘what can we do to stand out?’ and that’s when the idea of the holiday trip began. We took the basketball team to Scottsdale, Las Vegas, San Diego, and the Boosters helped fund it by purchasing ‘fly with a friend’ tickets from Southwest Airlines,” he said. “It was different than anything schools in our conference were doing, and that’s what you need to build a program.”
The improvements piled up: A new bus. Proper wooden flooring in the Greenhouse gym. The Saints Ambassadors scholarship structure. A fully-functioning booster club, that helped build funds for recruiting. A Host Family program to strengthen connections. The accolades, too, began to accumulate.
“Before that period of time, there were only a few championship banners in the gym,” Colvin said. “Now, you look at the walls, and they’re covered.”
Good programs and good resources attract good athletes, and they arrived as well.
“I remember going to a game one winter, and the line was out the door, people standing outside in the cold and snow at four in the afternoon. They wanted to see Carlo and Shelby Walton play. Those two captivated the community, playing with heart, passion, talking to the fans in the stands,” Colvin said. The bonds were getting stronger.
Those relationships shone through on Kent Colvin’s birthday, when he fielded dozens of calls from former Saints athletes, some of whom he and his wife hosted in their home. And they shone in 2016, during Virginia’s weeks in the skilled nursing unit, up to her death.
“Toby Wynn brought his team of basketball girls to visit, and they brought her coffee and talked to her before their big game,” Colvin said. “She was so happy to see them, and she asked them questions about how they were doing. My mom was always very giving. She always gave more of everything than she’d keep for herself.”
As one of four boys, he said, “she made sure we were dressed nicely for school, and then she bought her own clothes at Surplus Outlet.”
It makes sense, then, that after her husband’s death, and after the family realized it had no need of 40 highly-coveted acres of Montana mountainside property, that Virginia once more made a suggestion. Why not use the funds from the sale as seed money for the college?
“We didn’t have a real desire to sell the land for a profit, or for a particular purpose,” Kent said. “This money, it was the result of my dad’s dream, and the result of him doing what he loved after working so hard.”
Bill Colvin had already designated money for an Allied Health endowed scholarship in honor of an aunt, a nurse who left him a modest inheritance.
“He wanted to honor her, so he set up the Julie Elizabeth Colvin Strohwig Memorial Scholarship, and that funds the nursing education for one or two recipients each year,” Kent said. “In that way, our ties had been established with the nursing program.”
After a conversation with SCCC Executive Director of Development Tammy Doll, President Dr. Ken Trzaska, and Capital Campaign member Al Shank, Virginia said, “Why don’t we donate $1 million to kick off the Capital Campaign, for the Allied Health Center?”
“We realized, we could do that,” said Kent. “It’s not about any individual person, or our favorite aspects of the college, it’s about the whole Colvin family, and our commitment to the community. It’s all of my brothers, the grandkids, my mother, my father, his aunt, and about High Plains Pizza.
Though William Colvin passed away in 2009, and Virginia Colvin passed away in December 2016, Kent and the family see the project as a tribute to their lives and the way they chose to live — with determination, hard work, and generosity.
“I take solace in knowing that both my parents are looking down on us, and seeing us carry this project through,” he said. “I hope we inspire others to get serious about our fundraising, and involve people in the community. We still have a significant amount of money to raise — the Colvin gift is just the start — and I want to see us break ground as soon as we can.”
— Rachel Coleman, Marketing & PR