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Texas A&M honors former Koch exec Bill Hanna

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, May 27, 2014, at 6:57 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, May 27, 2014, at 6:59 a.m.

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Bill Hanna just collected another honor.

He earned it by helping people, as has happened before.

When he talks about that, he draws a straight line between two seemingly separate things.

Hanna is 78 years old and healthy.

He says there’s a link between helping others and living long.

Efforts honored

Texas A&M University, his alma mater, has now declared him one of its “distinguished alumni,” an honor so far conferred on 237 of Texas A&M’s 410,000 former students.

Hanna earned the distinction, university officials said in a statement, by doing effective work for A&M such as serving on committees, establishing scholarship funds and fundraising, all while in recent years helping thousands of vulnerable children in Kansas reshape their futures.

The A&M honor came a year after the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization gave him its highest honor, the Charles G. Berwind Lifetime Achievement Award.

And that one happened, in part, because Hanna in recent years saved several Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations in the state.

Millions raised

Texas A&M is a long drive from Wichita. But Dan Soliday and others that Hanna works with at Big Brothers Big Sisters say A&M’s honor is another reason for our community to remind ourselves not only about what Hanna has done, but how and why he did it.

Hanna has raised millions for the organization since 2001, said Soliday, the CEO of Kansas Big Brothers and Sisters.

He may not have personally raised all of it, Soliday said, but Hanna, who was Koch Industries’ chief operating officer, is so respected in the business community that the mention of his name, as the organization’s chief advocate, often prompts people to give.

“I don’t have any problem asking people for money,” Hanna said. “That’s partly because I myself will likely do more for the organization than I will ever ask anyone else to do. And one other reason is that I know that this country is oriented to charity. Americans are generous. I hate what is going on in Washington, and I wish government wasn’t involved in the charity business, but our people are oriented strongly toward helping others.”

Because of Hanna’s work since his 2001 retirement from Koch, Soliday said, 6,000 adult mentors coach 6,000 children in 93 counties in Kansas about how to navigate through school and life.

Nothing illustrated Hanna’s leadership and generosity like what he did after the 2008 recession began to unfold, Soliday said. The recession became bad news for charities throughout the state.

“So he took us from being a county-based organization to leading us into a merger of smaller Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations throughout the state,” Soliday said. “If not for that, half our counties in the state of Kansas would have lost their organizations during the economic downturn. He saved them.”

Just be there

There’s much saving still needed, Hanna and Big Brothers officials said. There are still 4,000 children on a waiting list for a mentor, said Mary Shannon, the organization’s chief development officer.

What drew him to Big Brothers’ Hanna said, was that it wasn’t just about giving money or a service. “It was about teaching children the difference between living and existing,” he said. Giving a child money is one thing; teaching him to show up with a plan for every day, and with a more general plan about completing school, means a chance for a real life, he said.

He said he’s worried about where Wichita will end up if the numbers he’s seen at Big Brothers continue to grow. Shannon outlines them:

In the past five years, the number of Kansas kids living at or below the poverty level has increased from 18.5 percent to 23 percent. This growth is faster than the national average.

Of the kids Kansas Big Brothers serves:

•  82 percent are from single homes

•  80 percent live in families with income levels at or below the poverty level

•  61 percent live in families with alcohol or drug addiction backgrounds

•  37 percent have been abused or neglected

•  25 percent have a parent who has been, or currently is, incarcerated

The way those problems get solved, Hanna said, is to have someone get personally involved with each child. It doesn’t have to be time consuming and need not be about buying things. Just be there, he said. Take them to ball games sometimes. Give advice about how to get through school and life.

Formula for long life

More recently, Hanna said, he got even more deeply involved in Youth Entrepreneurs than ever before. The organization in large part was created by Liz Koch, the wife of his former employer, Charles Koch. “I probably do more with them now than I do for Big Brothers,” he said. The group works with high school sophomores and juniors mostly from low-income families. They learn entrepreneurship. That emphasis on teaching kids to plan ahead and to try to better themselves is also a prominent thread of the fabric of what Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors try to do, he said.

“We live in a terrible world of hurt,” he said. “But if you get to these kids when they are young, persuade them that they’ve got to go do something and be a producer in society, well, that makes the difference between living and existing.”

Hanna, when contacted about the latest honor, had to cut short the interview the other day. He was scheduled to go do another workout.

His formula for living a long time and having success is this, he said:

Work hard.

Never start a day without a plan.

Work out five days a week, as he does.

And if you have a personal trainer, as he does for three of those five days, you might do as he did, and talk her into volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters for years.

He served as a Big Brother for nine.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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