50 Years Ago: Birth of the 'Ahearn Fund'
This beginning to the 2013-14 academic calendar marks the 50th year for the Ahearn Fund, which today numbers 9,500 members, who gifted $16.2 million in 2012-13.
Ernie "Mr. K-State" Barrett credits athletic director Bebe Lee (a 2013 K-State Athletics Hall of Fame inductee) for starting the Ahearn Fund in 1964, and was named after legendary Wildcat coach/administrator Mike Ahearn.
Initially, Barrett said, "We thought it would generate a tax advantage so people would give more money than the Wildcat Club (now the Catbackers) generated. It was a club designed to involve all K-Staters."
And how it has worked.
Initially, a $25 donation would get you a membership into the Ahearn Fund, and now 50 years later it has remained affordable for all Wildcat fans at $50 for an entry membership.
It was Barrett who first went out soliciting those $25 donations following his career with the NBA Boston Celtics. The former Wildcat All-American returned to assist basketball coach Tex Winter, but part of the job description was being a fund raiser.
In reality, Barrett's fundraising gig started in 1953 when he briefly retired from the Celtics and returned to work with KSU Alumni Association president Kenny Ford.
"We hit all 105 counties one summer with Kenny getting funds for the Alumni Association and me for the Ahearn Fund," said Barrett, who said it wasn't unusual to put 40,000 miles on his car over two-lane highways and trails of Kansas. "Kenny was just a phenomenal individual and the one I credit for getting me acquainted with the great people of Kansas State."
It was also in the mid-1960s that Barrett made his first formal presentation to the most generous of donors in the Manhattan area.
"We met at the old Holiday Inn on Tuttle Creek Boulevard and invited 35 of our top local people to a luncheon. Bebe made the presentation how we needed more money for athletic scholarships and that I was going to be in charge of the program," Barrett recalled. "We were asking for $1,000 per man.
"They looked astonished that we were asking for that much money, but finally Jack Goldstein and Tom Griffith stood up and said they'd do it, and it ended up that 23 of the 35 donated $1,000," said Barrett. Chuckling, he added, "More than one said they did it because they knew since it was such a sizeable amount, we wouldn't be asking them for any more money after that type of donation."
They were wrong.
K-State needed those donations to be competitive, just as it does today. So, caring for K-State as he does, Barrett was never afraid to ask.
Through the years it became a running joke that if people saw Barrett coming with right hand extended, laughing, he said, "They automatically asked, 'How much do you want now?' "
On the key to fundraising for the Ahearn Fund, or a special facility improvement, Barrett said, "You have to develop a relationship regardless of the amount you're asking for. You have to be sincere when discussing how this money is going to be used and what it will do for the school. You have to be honest with them and then fulfill the obligation to make Kansas State better."
The Ahearn Fund later added a Steer-A-Year program where Barrett went to cattlemen and asked for a $1,000 donation.
"They'd laugh at me and say, 'Ernie, we can't give you $1,000, but go out and take two or three head of cattle instead of giving $1,000," he reflected.
At that time, a steer was worth around $500 to $750. Today the value is well over $1,000 per head with Catbacker Club leader Lon Floyd recently collecting over $90,000 in Steer-A-Year donations during a spring western Kansas swing.
Of the overall relationship with western Kansas donors 30, 40 and 50 years ago, Barrett said, "You'd be amazed at the number of those farmers and cattlemen that never went to Kansas State, or any college. But they appreciated the fact that Kansas State made an effort to come out and see them personally."
And Barrett made a point to personally get to know each and every one of them.
While six- and even seven-figure donations are not unusual today, Barrett remembers the grass roots approach of 1969 when he sold the first artificial surface at then KSU Stadium to individual fans for $28.50 a yard.
The reality is, that as athletics director from 1965-1975, and later as KSU's ace fund raiser, Barrett personally raised nearly every dollar until the last five years for the KSU Stadium, Bramlage Coliseum, the Colbert Hills Golf Course, R.V. Christian Track and Tointon Family Stadium.
"I have no idea what I've raised," said Barrett. "Bonnie (his wife) says I should add it up some day, but it's been a lot."
As to which project gave him the most satisfaction, he said, "I don't know. Each one of them was very special because they were needed at that time."
Of the overall success of Kansas State University, and the Ahearn Fund gifting programs that help make it a player in the Big 12 Conference, Barrett said, "Kansas State is a 'people university.' As coach Snyder has emphasized family, in all my travels through the years it is our people who have made us the athletic department we are and the university that we are."
Being a member of the Ahearn Fund - at any level - is another way K-Staters everywhere help make K-State Athletics what it is today.