Honoring Pat Tillman and Veterans One Step at a Time

Pat's RunIn 2008, members of my family and staff joined me in a life-changing event. We were first-time walkers in Pat’s Run, a tribute and fundraiser to honor Pat Tillman, the outstanding college and pro football player who walked away from a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country as a member of the elite U.S. Army Rangers.

Tillman wasn’t just an outstanding player on the field, but a remarkable student off the field. Playing outside linebacker for Arizona State University, Tillman graduated in only three-and-a-half years while earning a 3.85 GPA. In 1998, the Arizona Cardinals drafted him to play safety. Less than a year after the United States was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman left pro football to join the U.S. Army Rangers. In April 2004, he was killed in action in Afghanistan.

To honor Tillman’s legacy and devotion to his country, friends created Pat’s Run. This event honors Tillman and raises money to provide scholarships to U.S. military veterans and spouses. The event has grown to the point where police and fire officials are forced to cap participants at 28,000.

In college, Tillman wore No. 42, and that number is woven into the event. The run/walk is 4.2 miles long and ends on the 42 yard line of the Arizona Sun Devils field. After 2010, I wanted to get more involved and organized an American Family team to participate. The response was overwhelming.

In just one year, we built a team of more than 180 people. As a company, American Family also became involved, sponsoring a kids run (420 yards) in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jack Salzwedel, Sales Strategy and Support Vice President Jerry Rekowski and other company officials joined the team and walked in the event. In 2013, American Family increased its sponsorship, and our logo is proudly displayed on every Pat’s Run shirt and thousands of kid’s jerseys.

It’s no secret many veterans need help with college. However, many are unable to attend because they don’t have the means. Pat’s Run provides funding for veterans who want to attend college. Funds can be used for daycare, rent, car payments and food – whatever it takes to help veterans earn their degrees. Each year, the Tillman Foundation selects 60 veterans to add to the program. To date, funds have helped 290 veterans.

Pat's Run - Kids' Fun RunLast year, my wife, Sandy, and I were guests at the pre-race festivities and had a chance to meet many of the veterans receiving support from the foundation. These are amazing people who put their lives on hold while they wore our country’s uniform. Participating in Pat’s Run helps me give back and say thank you to these brave men and women.

I am proud to be able to help this fine organization. I am also proud of so many from American Family are supporting this important event.  

This year, after 43 years with American Family, I plan to retire, but I’m not sitting still. My plan is to do volunteer work with the Tillman Foundation. 

Editor’s note: Donations from Pat’s Run directly support the Tillman Military Scholars program, which provides scholarships to U.S. military veterans and spouses who reflect Pat’s values, strength of character, and commitment to service. 

Easy, tough choices in Dan Kelly’s CFO Bracket Challenge victory

USA Today CFO Bracket ChallengeEveryone who knows me knows I am a huge college basketball fan. While I enjoy the regular season, particularly University of Wisconsin and Big Ten Conference basketball, the NCAA men’s tournament always brings extra excitement.

Like many, I participate in various pools (all for fun, of course) for the tourney. This year I was asked to participate in USA Today’s CFO Bracket Challenge, sponsored by GE Capital. Why me? It could not have been based on prior performance in pools! It was because of relationships our Marketing team has developed, specifically one with USA Today.

As part of the CFO Bracket Challenge, USA Today ran a series of articles with me and other chief financial officers from companies around the country. The story angles were often about how sports and business intersect in so many ways, such as needing strong leaders, performing as teams and, ultimately, trying to win against the competition – to name a few.

While I was a little nervous to participate, as this included a published interview with me, the scarier thought was that my bracket picks and subsequent results would be made public. However, it was for a great cause. The winner of the challenge would receive $5,000 given to a charity of their choice.

So, I forged ahead.

Choosing a charity was easy – the Steve Stricker American Family Foundation. Started a year ago, the foundation is a partnership between one of our brand ambassadors, pro golfer Steve Stricker, and American Family. It supports organizations that help build strong families and healthy kids – an easy charity choice for me.

Then I had to fill out the bracket. This is where the hard choices began. And I also knew they were going to publish results after each weekend.

We all know there are upsets in the NCAA tournament, particularly in the first round. The difficult part is deciding which ones. Mercer over Duke? Didn’t get that one. However, I picked two No. 12 seeds over No. 5 seeds in the round of 64 and got both of those. That helped me get off to a good start with 15 of 16 on day one.

My Sweet 16 picks were all the favorites. I didn’t realize that until I had filled my bracket out and was analyzing it. But it was hard to justify (at the time) picking against any of the top four regional seeds. Of those top 16 I picked, 10 indeed made it that far, and I ended the first weekend in second place.

My Big Ten bias showed when projecting my Final Four. I had Wisconsin (of course) and Michigan State making it along with Florida – the No. 1 team in the country for much of the year – and Louisville. The Cardinals were a No. 4 seed but playing well at the end of the year, and they were experienced, having been last year’s NCAA champ.  After the second weekend, I was in first place! On top of that, my beloved Badgers were in the Final Four.

As it turned out, the championship game pitted a No. 7 (Connecticut) vs. a No. 8 (Kentucky - ouch). I don’t think anyone picked that match-up! That’s what makes the tournament so exciting.

As for next year, if asked to defend my CFO Bracket Challenge title, two things will remain the same: The Steve Stricker American Family Foundation will be my charity of choice and Wisconsin will be in my Final Four!

Editor’s note: The Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation recently donated $75,000 to support the Edgerton Community Outreach program’s renovation of its community center in downtown Edgerton, Wis., Edgerton Community Outreach provides programs and services to those in need, including food and housing assistance, with the goal of self-sufficiency.

VSA Day is an experience you’ll remember

VSA Day - WisconsinThe kids get up early in anticipation of a very special day. It’s a day they’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It’s also a day I’ve enjoyed volunteering at during the last five years.

A couple of times my son, Demetrius, has also volunteered with me for the Very Special Arts (VSA) day when children with disabilities take part in a University of Wisconsin-Madison Badger football game.

On VSA Day at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, about 200 kids who are members of the VSA choir and marching band join the University of Wisconsin marching band during pregame and halftime activities.

We have volunteered in the rain, cold, snow and, on occasion, a beautiful fall day. But no matter the weather, it’s the smiles on the kids’ faces that always make the day beautiful.

Volunteers from American Family and other Madison employers meet at the stadium around 7:30 a.m. on game day to greet the kids as they get off the bus. Some of the kids have traveled from other parts of the state. Each volunteer is assigned one child, and it’s our responsibility to help them with pregame activities, lunch and during the game.

The kids really enjoy the chance to meet Bucky Badger, or even better, former Wisconsin football and NFL player Ron Dayne. When I have the opportunity to introduce the kids to Ron and take their photo with him, it really makes their day — and mine.

When you volunteer for this event, you need to be ready for a very full day. We attend a training session a week or so before the game to help us understand the best way to assist someone who has a disability and the responsibilities of volunteering for this event.

I often help a neighbor at home who is my age and disabled, so I share what I know about volunteering at this event during the training. I also enjoy hearing the stories other volunteers share. This is one event where finding someone to stand in is not easy and could impact one of the kids’ experiences at the game.

It’s gratifying to be a part of VSA Day and it brings a real joy to my heart. Maybe you’ll consider joining me next year.

Editor’s note: Learn more about VSA Wisconsin, an organization offering artistic opportunities to Wisconsin children and adults with disabilities. American Family has sponsored this organization with financial contributions and volunteers for events such as this since 1997.

Let’s share our greatest asset

The value of personal interaction.I’ve been fortunate to work in a variety of roles during my time with American Family.

I started in AmPlan, our company’s billing department at one time. I remember trying to reconcile complex commercial billing accounts. I was just out of college and working with people who had 20, 30, even 40 years of experience. I admired how dedicated these people were and how efficiently they answered questions asked by customers and agents.

I wondered if I would ever do my job as well as they did.

I marveled at what they knew.

A few years later, I joined the Claim Division as a property adjuster. I worked with agents and adjusters who, for years, made it their business to help customers through some of the most trying times of their lives.

I wondered if I would ever do my job as well as they did.

I marveled at what they knew.

Here I am, more than 20 years later. Many of my expert friends are retired or no longer with the company. I’ll always appreciate the patience and willingness they showed when sharing with me their knowledge and, more important, their experience.

I think the spirit of sharing is alive and well at American Family. We just do it differently now. Technology helps us share information more efficiently, and it gives us more ways to interact with each other. That’s a good thing, but it also takes some of the human element out of the equation — and that human element is invaluable and difficult to replicate.

I sometimes wonder what my expert friends would think about today’s American Family. I know they’d be proud of our agent and employee accomplishments, and of our commitment to our customers.

And if I had to guess, I think they’d offer this advice:

What your co-workers know is your company’s greatest asset. When people don’t personally interact, the transfer of knowledge is compromised. Through your day-to-day work, strike the right balance between technology and each other to keep the art of personal interaction alive and well.

In the process, you’ll all marvel at what you know.

New Motivation in Seven minutes, 52 seconds

Mark Romney on his bike.Two hours, 27 minutes and 52 seconds is a long time to spend swimming. It also was the start to my first attempt at an Ironman Triathlon race on Nov. 17, 2013, in Arizona.

Unfortunately, that extra seven minutes, 52 seconds doomed the rest of my race. To continue the triathlon, I had to finish the 2.4-mile swim in two hours and 20 minutes or less.

Ever since my grandmother and I watched Julie Moss crawl across the finish line in 1982 at the Ironman World Championships, I’ve been intrigued by the race. It consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. There are races held around the world, and the one in Arizona was the day after my birthday, so, in my mind, it was the logical one to train for.

I started slowly by swimming a bit and riding a trainer in my basement. I also broke three treadmills. Just bad luck, I hoped. I bought all the right equipment, read the books and prepared as well as I could. I enlisted a trainer and a swim coach for a while, but later did it on my own.

My training went well. But I could have done more. There were opportunities I missed and I thought I had done enough. That, and a vacation just three weeks before the race kept me preoccupied. But I still believed I was ready. I believed I would finish right before the midnight cutoff.

On the day of the race I felt pretty good. The water was about 65 degrees and 2,500 strangers were in it with me. The gun sounded, and suddenly I felt like I was in a high-powered washing machine. I was kicked, swam over and jostled by every one of those other swimmers. I lost focus, rhythm and some confidence. But I was determined. I couldn’t get my stroke back, so I swam breaststroke instead of freestyle. It was tough. I was behind, but had a volunteer in a kayak encouraging me the entire way.

I swam farther than I ever had in my life, but still just missed the cutoff.  The extra seven minutes and 52 seconds was my undoing.

At the time, I was upset. I was even more upset the next morning, when I saw a finisher hobbling around the hotel lobby.

Then, my anger turned into determination and resolve.

If he could do it, so could I. I had the knowledge, I had the training, I had the support – all I needed was the speed. I could fix that.

Training for the Ironman is like the obstacles we face every day. We can try, and we can fail, but most important, we can overcome our challenges. It’s in each of us to make the effort if we so choose.

I know I’ll sign up for another Ironman, and I will finish. To me, it’s about the challenge and the effort and when it is done, the finish line.

My next Ironman, I expect to hear at the finish line, “Mark Romney, “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

Oh, and I’ll get the tattoo.

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