A Will and a Way

My Generation

What's it take to get to college? Hard work, if you follow this man's example.

Published on: July 18, 2011

You know how every once in awhile, a story will really stick with you? We were in Champaign this weekend for a fundraising kickoff for Nabor House, the ag fraternity where John lived in college. In short, it was a fun weekend filled with a lot of laughter and a reminder that nearly every great story starts with "One time in college…"

What stuck with me though – far beyond the mental picture of some seriously funny college stories – was the story of one of the founders of Nabor House, Sam Ridlen. Much like 4-H House, Nabor House was started during the Depression as a way to provide low-cost housing for farm kids who wanted to attend the University of Illinois.

Sam was one of nine children who grew up on a farm south of Marion during the Depression. He was the only one of his siblings to go to high school, and only then because he worked for the out-of-district tuition and rode the milk truck into town every morning. His high school vo-ag teacher got him interested in the University of Illinois and the local Extension agent helped him find a scholarship.

But it was still 1936 and times were still hard. He left for college with one pair of pants and a pair of shoes. His parents gave him a quarter, a postage stamp and their blessing.  

On campus, he worked on the poultry farm, in exchange for a room in the attic of the poultry building. There, he studied by the furnace to keep warm, and lived on a diet of boiled eggs cooked in a tin can in the furnace. He worked hard, went to church and was a natural leader. Two years later, he and four other young men of similar minds and backgrounds founded Nabor House, as a cooperative living group where they shared meals, chores and friendship.

It's no surprise that Sam went on to become a national-recognized authority on poultry production, traveling the world to share his expertise. He worked hard. He made good choices. He set goals. Today, Nabor House is still the cheapest place to live on campus.

And the thing is, he wasn't alone back then. The agricultural history books are held together with stories of young people persevering against insurmountable odds to succeed.  

Today? It's easy to think we and our children take education for granted. To read the Facebook status updates of a few teenagers and realize how entitled they feel to either a job or an education. I think they are the minority, if only because I know kids who are working like Sam Ridlen to get to college.

If I learned anything growing up, it was of the value of hard work and the fact that no one owes me anything. Sam Ridlen got the same lesson. He was a man without an ounce of entitlement. He just worked hard. There's a lot we could learn from him.