The following is edited from remarks of Defense Secretary Robert Gates upon receiving the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas Distinguished Kansan of the Year Award on Jan. 29 in Topeka:
Growing up in Kansas in the late 1940s and 1950s was, for me, in retrospect, an idyllic childhood. My life revolved around family, school, church and Boy Scouts. I had wonderful friends. We didn't do too many stupid things, and somehow we survived the absence of bike helmets, seat belts, air bags and hand sanitizer.
In addition to my parents, I had a number of amazing role models growing up in Kansas, especially in Boy Scouts and in school. Scoutmaster Forrest Beckett taught me about leadership and character and persistence. He also taught us Kansas Scouts many important skills, such as how to build a cook fire in winter from dried cow chips — imparting a unique flavor to already nearly inedible food.
But I would like to single out one particular person outside my family who had a lasting influence on me, and that is coach Bob Timmons.
I wasn't much of an athlete, but I worked for Coach Timmons for three years as a student manager in both cross-country and track at Wichita High School East. Timmons' teams won many state championships and, of course, he won many more championships as a longtime coach at the University of Kansas. I first learned to type working for Coach Timmons — and the smell of Wite-Out and mimeograph ink lingers still.
He was a great coach, but above all he was a great teacher and example. In three years working for him before and after school, I never heard Timmons swear, and I never heard him yell at a kid. No amount of screaming was as effective a motivator as Timmons putting his arm around a student's shoulder and quietly saying, "I'm disappointed you didn't give your best effort, your all." And that applied to academics as well as athletics.
Half a century later, as secretary of defense of the United States, I carry Timmons' life lessons in leadership, integrity, discipline, motivating people and treating all of them respectfully to work with me every single day.
I have distinct memories of my elders back when I was growing up. The Kansans who'd lived lives spanning the 19th and 20th centuries represented, really, a vanished way of life on what was the American frontier — a generation whose lives, like my grandfather's, spanned traveling in covered wagons to seeing a man on the moon. Our immediate elders had survived the Depression; the Dust Bowl, which was particularly severe in western Kansas; and two world wars.
Surrounded by such people, character and integrity, Kansas values and Kansas common sense became the bedrock of my life, a bedrock that has been my touchstone no matter how far I have traveled or how long I have been gone from Kansas.
For all the places I have gone, the jobs I have held, the notable people I have met and worked with, I will always consider myself first and foremost a kid from Kansas who got lucky. I have now worked for eight presidents. Whatever I have accomplished I believe has been due to my Kansas roots and heritage — a heritage of family, friends, mentors and values.