Retirement of a Salesman
You know what they say about a good salesperson: Selling ice to Eskimos would be a piece of cake. Gene Cole would have them buying it like there’s no tomorrow.
Cole, associate dean of business and industry at Cowley and a major “salesman” for economic development in Cowley and Barton counties during his career, is retiring Oct. 31 after 11 1/2 years at the college. “I just think the timing is right,” said Cole, who started working for Cowley in July 1991. “I want to enjoy all of Cowley’s sports and be supportive, because I love sports.” Cole also loves people. It’s the relationships he’s cultivated through the years that have enhanced his ability to sell.
One of Cole’s first jobs was in sales. “I worked for Sheneman’s Meat Market in route sales and behind the counter,” said Cole, a 1955 graduate of Winfield High School. “Then one day they told me to go down to the kill floor. I saw an animal get hit right between the eyes, with tears rolling down its face, and I turned around and hung up my apron. I wasn’t going to do that any more.”
That experience also exposed Cole’s sensitive side, another characteristic that has aided him throughout his career. Nor did it hurt his personal life. Cole married his high school sweetheart, Donella French, in 1957. They have four children—Denise, Lisa, Diane, and Mike—and eight grandchildren.
In 1962, after jobs with Jarvis Auto in Winfield and Jap Hurst Ford in Augusta as service manager, parts manager and sales manager, Cole and his wife moved to Great Bend with their two young daughters. Gene worked for three car dealerships before quite possibly discovering what he does best: Promote. From 1967 to 1976, Cole worked for the Great Bend Economic Development Commission, and had a major hand in bringing 1,500 jobs to the community in Fuller Brush, Ruskin Manufacturing, American Trailer, and the expansion of several existing industries.
It was during that time when he met Dr. Patrick J. McAtee, current Cowley president, who was working for Barton County Community College. “He (McAtee) was an instructor when I first met him,” Cole said. The Coles were active in the community while raising four young children. In 1972, Gene received the Young American Award from the Business and Professional Women’s Association. A year later, he was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Great Bend Jaycees, and the Greater Great Bend Award from the Golden Belt Kiwanis Club.
Following his nine-year tenure at the commission, Cole partnered with Jim McCullough of Manhattan and developed Southwind Properties, a 115-acre housing development in Great Bend. The venture was successful until high interest rates of the late 1970s and early 1980s hit. “I had an old-timer tell me once that you leave when you’re winning, not when someone tells you to,” Cole said.
Cole soon got out of the housing development business and went to work for Great Plains Equipment in Great Bend. He was sales manager in charge of the company’s five stores in Kansas. John Deere was the company’s primary line of equipment. “I covered the whole state,” Cole said. Murphy Tractor eventually purchased Great Plains, and the company wanted Cole to move to its Wichita office. He said thanks, but no thanks.
In 1984, he hooked up with McAtee and former Barton County President Dr. Jimmie Downing, and Cole became Barton’s director of business and industry. Cole seemed to be a natural fit, given his relationships in the past. After McAtee became president of Cowley in July 1987, Cole left Barton five months later to become sales manager for a company that sold medical sterilizers. Four years later, he was reunited with his old friend. “I was traveling through Ark City one day and stopped at Wendy’s and there sat Pat and (former Cowley men’s basketball coach) Ron Murphree,” Cole recalls. “Pat said what are you doing and I said not much. He said why don’t you come to work for me.” And Cole did, but not when he had planned.
In spring 1991, just before he became director of business and industry at Cowley, Cole had a heart attack. It gave him a greater appreciation for life. Now, he tries to live each day to its fullest. “I read obituaries of people who were 55, 60, 65 years old,” Cole said. “I want to retire and enjoy the years I have left.” Cole has enjoyed great success during his working life. He said the economic development job he had in Great Bend, and his time at Cowley, rank as most satisfying. “We were successful out in Great Bend,” he said. “When you’re winning, it’s always fun. It was exciting to be able to help the community.
“And I have to say that coming to Cowley was one of the best moves I ever made. It came at a time when I needed it.” Cole said he’s grateful for the support shown by Cowley’s Board of Trustees, administrators and staff toward his work with business and industry. “They’ve been very open to what we’ve needed to do,” Cole said.
While at Cowley, Cole:
• Helped organize the first Tiger Booster Club Blitz Drive in 1993, a one-day fundraising activity to generate funds for athletic scholarships. The drive continues today.
• Helped develop pre-employment training during General Electric’s expansion at Strother Field.
• Researched and found a location for the Southside Education Center in Wichita, which has grown from a few full-time students to more than 1,100 today.
• Helped the college partner with Boeing to establish the Manufacturing Skills program. Boeing and Cowley have a strong partnership today.
• Worked diligently to pull together several partners to form the Cowley College Workforce Development Center at Strother Field. The center was formally dedicated in September 2001.
• Has worked with dozens of area industries to develop employee training and assist displaced workers.
Cole said working with McAtee has been rewarding. “Pat has been awesome,” Cole said. “He’s so open to your ideas; he’s a visionary. He never stood in my way to accomplish anything. Along with being a great person to work with, he’s been a great friend. He always had faith that I could get the job done. His support has been the most critical part of our relationship.”
In retirement, the 65-year-old Winfield native won’t sit idle during his time away from a “real” job. Cole said he plans to spend time with children and grandchildren, catch up on his “honey-do” list from the last five years, and work part-time on special assignments for the college. He also plans to continue serving on the board of directors of the Cowley County Economic Development Agency. “I really enjoy supporting CCEDA, and I’m proud of the college for stepping up and making the commitment to economic development of this county,” he said.
Looking back, Cole acknowledges the support he’s received from his wife. Now, he said, it’s his turn. “She allowed me to do so many different things,” he said. “While I was in economic development, she was raising our children. “My career’s been all about building relationships and trust. And never compromise your integrity. No one does things by themselves. If you develop contacts and trust in people, they are willing to help.” Cole said he’d replay his life in a heartbeat. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “I have a beautiful wife and four wonderful kids. What more could you ask for.”