Arts & Culture

Philanthropist, oil businessman Carl Sebits supported Wichita’s arts, charities

A child of the Great Depression determined to give back to his community, oil entrepreneur Carl Sebits left the Wichita area an ongoing legacy of philanthropy when he passed away last week.

Those who knew him said Mr. Sebits wasn’t flashy about his giving, and you may not know his name. But if you’ve ever gotten help from local charities – especially the Salvation Army – or gone to local fine arts events, you’ve probably experienced some of his generosity yourself.

“He was a quiet philanthropist,” said Lisa Hittle, director of the jazz music department at Friends University, where Sebits underwrote buildings and endowed perpetual scholarship funds. Hittle said she first met Sebits as a donor, but came to know him as a close friend to her and her students.

“He was kind and humble and had a great sense of humor,” she said. “He’s someone I will really, really miss.”

Friends ballet department director Sharon Rogers, also a family friend, said Sebits’ generosity extended into many areas of community life – often anonymously.

“It’s a big hole in our hearts here,” she said of his death. “But I think it’s a huge loss for the city.”

Mr. Sebits died Friday at his home near Cheney. He was 97.

Born in Caldwell on Oct. 15, 1915, Mr. Sebits moved to Wichita as a child, said his grandson, Trent Sebits.

Mr. Sebits attended Wichita Business College, a trade school for accountants and business assistants, because he couldn’t afford to attend the Municipal University of Wichita, the forerunner of Wichita State, his grandson said. After graduation, Mr. Sebits worked for several local oil companies before enlisting the Navy and serving in World War II.

“In 1948, Lloyd Pickrell and he and another gentleman started this company, Pickrell Drilling Co.,” Trent Sebits said. “The main guy, Lloyd Pickrell, had the most money and was older than the other two guys at the time,” so the company was named for him.

Pickrell died of a heart attack in late 1958, at age 54. “My grandfather took over after that and he never renamed the company or anything, but my grandfather has run it basically since 1959,” Trent Sebits said.

Over the years, Mr. Sebits had a front-row view of the development of downtown.

“He told me when he started working downtown he had to park his car at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and take public transportation … because for someone just starting off, there was no parking available, downtown was so crowded,” Trent Sebits said. “He always told me how he had seen kind of the rise and fall of downtown Wichita. From starting here in ’36 until just a few weeks ago, coming downtown his whole life, he had certainly seen everything.”

He was active in a variety of business organizations and civic groups, including the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, the Wichita Crime Commission and the Downtown Kiwanis Club.

But as successful as Mr. Sebits became in business, he never lost sight of his hardscrabble upbringing in a modest home across the street from the stadium, his grandson said.

“He remembered his father coming home in the Depression and saying ‘We don’t have any money. We’re completely out of money.’” Trent Sebits said. “And he had to work from the earliest they would allow people to work. He worked for grocery stores up and down Douglas, and filling stations, but not for himself, just to pay the bills. So he was just always a huge proponent of supporting organizations like the Salvation Army that could help families that were going through what he went through and his family went through.”

Mr. Sebits served so long on the Salvation Army board that they made him an emeritus member for life, Trent Sebits said.

“He always loved the Salvation Army, because I think his family needed a lot of help in those difficult days of the ’30s and I think he always wanted to give back as best he could when he started to make money in the oil business.”

Through the years, Sebits donated to a variety of arts organizations and underwrote numerous Wichita appearances by visiting artists, including a concert by the Count Basie Orchestra at the Orpheum Theater in February.

But probably nowhere is Sebits’ philanthropy more visible than at Friends University. His wife Dixie, who died in 2011, was a Friends alumna and Sebits served on the university board for many years.

In the late 1990s, the couple made a major gift to the university, adding a wing to the school’s fine arts building, building a ballet studio and renovating its performance auditorium. They also created permanent endowments to provide ongoing scholarships for promising ballet and jazz students.

“For kind of a hard-nosed businessman, he always had a great love for the arts, especially jazz,” Trent Sebits said.

The Sebitses weren’t the kind of donors to hang their name on a building and leave it at that. They frequently attended performances and rehearsals at Friends, brought visiting artists to the campus and encouraged the students.

“He went to all the ballet stuff with her and she went to all the jazz stuff with him,” Trent Sebits said.

Rogers said even after his health started to fail in recent months, Mr. Sebits made it a point to come to performances and interact with the students – most recently at a choreography showcase in May.

“He was such a wonderfully mannered gentleman and she (Mrs. Sebits) was just funny and wonderful,” Rogers said. “We actually call it Dixie’s Dance Hall sometimes just because we all loved them so much. They make dreams possible for our dancers.”

Trent Sebits said his grandfather’s love of jazz transcended the racial barriers in Wichita, even at the height of the era of segregation.

“Here’s a guy who grew up with nothing, a white kid in Kansas, very early on, inviting black musicians to his house to play jazz in his home, in rural Cheney, Kansas,” he said. “I don’t know who was doing that in the 1950s. I don’t think many people were.”

Mr. Sebits is survived by his son, David, and daughter-in-law Dixie Sebits, of Hesston; grandchildren Trent and wife Jeni Sebits, of Wichita; Travis and wife Andrea Sebits, of Hesston; and Lindsey Sebits, also of Hesston; also five great-grandchildren.

Services were held Monday at Cheney United Methodist Church. Memorials have been established with the Salvation Army, Friends University Scholarship Fund and Harry Hynes Memorial Hospice.

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