Serving as a campus guide, making phone calls for Dollars for Scholars, attending class, running six miles around campus, mowing lawns – you name it, chances are Ken Calwell did it as a Washburn student.
“A lot of the students were like me; Washburn fit into our lives,” said Calwell, the 2013 Oscar S. Stauffer Executive in Residence. “Washburn was wonderful from a lot of perspectives, from the size of the school, to the ability to really get to know the professors. I actually became pretty close friends with two of my professors.
“Washburn helped me in learning to balance family, working and all the other important things in life.”
Calwell, bba ’84, Portland, Ore., has made the most of what he learned at Washburn, building a successful career as a marketing executive at several restaurant franchises. He worked as an executive at Dominos, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, FritoLay and Pillsbury, and is the president and chief executive officer at Papa Murphy’s International.
He attributes his career to this education and a message his father delivered often.
“My dad always said, ‘You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so listen as twice as much as you talk,’” Calwell said. “You’ve got to love people because it’s a people business, and you’ve got to take time out to listen. Listening to people, you hear their stories and you learn what gifts they have. You know which mountain you want to get to, so you match what you want to accomplish with what gifts people have. That’s marketing and leadership.”
Calwell’s ascent to his current position came with obstacles. In the early 1990s, he overcame a biking accident that resulted in multiple broken bones and skull fractures. While he and a friend were training for the national triathlon championships, a driver fell asleep at the wheel, crossing into their lane and resulting in a head-on collision.
“We were biking out toward (Derby, Kan.) on a training ride. She was going 50 miles per hour, and I was going 20,” Calwell said. “We collided at 70 miles per hour, I hit the grill, went into the windshield, then I got pulled along the side and got caught under the rear tire.
“They didn’t know if I’d make it for the first seven days. Lots of prayer, and lots of people praying; I saw God working through it.”
Calwell’s body gradually healed. Five months after the accident, he was told his left leg wouldn’t be amputated. A little more than a year after the collision, he started to get the feeling back in his right arm.
By June 20, 1992, his 30th birthday, Calwell was swimming a leg of the Topeka Tinman triathlon. In 2002, he was selected to carry the Olympic torch.
“I had goose bumps all over,” Calwell said of his torch run. “When it’s your time, you’ve been thinking about it and you just take off! Then you’re thinking ‘Wait, I’m going too fast,” so you slow way down.
“The coolest thing isn’t the actual run. The morning of, the people that get to run gather and each person tells why they were nominated to run with the torch. We all sat there and cried; you listen to inspirational stories.”
A Topeka resident, Calwell said he has fond memories of his hometown and the university.
“Everything comes back to Washburn,” he said. “I grew up on one side of campus, and lived on the other side. (Coming to campus) is like coming home again.”
A full day
Calwell owned a lawn-mowing business while at Washburn, which included cutting grass on campus. He talked about a full day that included mowing and his role as a student senator:
“By my senior year I’d gotten involved on campus, in the student senate, so I was helping to promote Washburn. I was on campus, mowing a yard, and some folks came through. They were all in suits and ties, all in a car; they were lost. They asked for directions, so I gave them directions and didn’t think anything of it.
“The day goes on, and as a student senator, I had to host some folks, so I got all cleaned up, dressed … well, it was the same people. They didn’t say anything because they didn’t recognize me. So I showed them around campus.
“The next day we had Dollars for Scholars, so I was doing a calling campaign. The same folks came through and saw me and finally one says, ‘Are you the guy that gave us the tour the other day?’ Another one said, ‘You were the one that gave us directions!’
“So what’s an Ichabod? An Ichabod is somebody who gets their hands dirty and gets involved. Part-time student, part-time promoting school, part-time mowing the school. Still to this day when I hire people, I try to find other whether they’re comfortable in the real world, willing to get their hands dirty.”