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Article - Donor who came from nothing gives a great deal to UNK

Donor who came from nothing gives a great deal to UNK

Donor who came from nothing gives a great deal to UNK

He grew up in the Dust Bowl days on a farm near Kenesaw, Neb. His mother stuck rags into anything that resembled a crack to keep the dirt out.

Posted: Wed, Dec 21, 2011

Robert Sahling says he came from "exactly nothing."

He grew up in the Dust Bowl days on a farm near Kenesaw, Neb. His mother stuck rags into anything that resembled a crack to keep the dirt out.

Sahling, who started the Sahling Kenworth Inc. truck dealership 40 years ago in Kearney, never went to college. Yet he's made UNK and its student-athletes a focus of his giving, along with his Kearney church.

He gives back, he says, because he's grateful for a great life – one he almost didn't get to live.

More from a conversation with him:

"Robert, are you sure you know what the hell you are doing?"

I remember saying that to myself. It was 1972. I'd finally gotten the Kenworth franchise after years of hard work driving trucks and selling used trucks. They'd just put in the footings of our new building, and I was standing on the foundation, watching the sunset. But I knew God was watching out for me. He always has been.

I suppose I was 4 or 5 when the WPA (Works Progress Administration) came out with a program where if you needed a new outhouse they'd put one up for eight dollars – a two-holer on a concrete base with doors. I don't know where my dad found the eight dollars, but I remember we got one.

That was a step up, believe me!

Mom would tear apart feed sacks to make us boys shirts. Those sacks had brilliant designs. Mom was a strong-willed person. French and German. She'd help anyone. So what compassion I guess I've gathered in my lifetime, I learned it from her. She never swayed in her faith. She just had an air about her that God will take care of you, help you overcome anything.

I was 6 years old when my sister died. Huelah Mae. She was 8, a sweet little gal with a big smile. She looked an awful lot like my mother, who was a very pretty woman. Our house burned down the same night my sister came down with scarlet fever. Then I came down with it. I wasn't supposed to live, either. We were quarantined. So the doctors did my double mastoid surgery on the kitchen table. My dad had gone around the community and gathered up as many gas lamps as he could find, with lights that would get real bright. Three days after my surgery, my sister died. I remember her funeral, out in the yard of the farm.

My dad trucked all of his life. He did care about people, too. Every once in a while, he'd come home and he'd have some guy with him – some guy down on his luck who'd been hitchhiking. Dad would say, "Go downstairs and get yourself a good old shower." Mom would fix the guy a meal.

I'm glad I was raised in the era I was raised in. You learn a lot of hard lessons young, but you survive them and you remember them and you try not to go through those situations again. I am so blessed. It's unreal. I wound up with nothing more than a high school education – and I didn't really apply myself too good to that. And for too many years in my life it was too much "me, me." Now I could care less. I have a wonderful family who are all in good positions today. I sold the company to my son. Whenever I could do something for someone in my family, it always made me feel so good. With my mother, I wish she could have seen a few more years. I was just starting to make some pretty good money by the time she died. There were a lot of wonderful things I'd liked to have done for her – anything she'd wanted, believe me.

Today, I do two things: I give to my church, and I give to the University of Nebraska at Kearney. UNK is a family to me, too. Chancellor Kristensen – there's not a better guy on earth. I've met so many young men on the football team. They are the neatest young bucks. In my estate, I'm leaving money to students. But they have to be from Nebraska or the northern half of Kansas. That's Sahling Kenworth's trade area. The scholarships will be flexible, primarily need-based. But some could be for students facing extenuating circumstances. 

The good Lord steered me through the years. Today, I love the Lord, and I love to do things that please Him.

Student support is a priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you also would like to help UNK students, please give online or contact the University of Nebraska Foundation's Lucas Dart at 800-432-3216.

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