Alumni Success - Cecil O'Brate


“I have found no substitute for an honest day’s work, an inquisitive mind, and a desire to always do more.” – 
Cecil O’Brate.

What happens when a 1940s Syracuse High School alumni crosses paths with a Syracuse Bulldog activity bus? Well, if you are Cecil O’Brate, a successful farmer, oilman, entrepreneur, investor, visionary, and leader who has generously donated to many organizations, you give each child on the bus a wristband to Parrot Cove, a water park in Garden City, one of the many projects he has funded.  
The Syracuse Elementary School students of Katrina Neubrandt and Haylee Barta were on an end of year art field trip in Garden City. They also received a Challenge Coin from the O’Brate Foundation with a quote from Cecil, “I have found no substitute for an honest day’s work, an inquisitive mind and a desire to always do more.” 
O’Brate said, “They were inquisitive, we talked about a lot of things.” Katrina Neubrandt was a bit skeptical, “He was a stranger, and I was in teacher mode, protecting the kids. But they were very interested in what he did and when he told them he graduated from Syracuse they wanted to know what school was like back them.” 
I returned to Garden City to interview Cecil at his office, which he goes to most every day. While this may seem normal, Cecil is 94 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. “I like to make things happen and be actively involved in the day-to-day business,” he said.  
Cecil was born and raised in Enid, Okla., growing up during the depression, he worked several jobs to help provide for the family. Just before his senior year of high school, he moved to Syracuse to help his grandfather, A.H O’Brate, custom farm 3,000 acres north of Kendall.  
Describing one of his experiences growing up, he told the story of the year he went custom cutting with his uncle, beginning in the panhandle of Texas up to Bellfield S.D., “We had pull behind Gleaners, with a twelve-foot header which we had to take off to go down the road. We would put it on a trailer, which was pulled by a pickup, then put the combine up on the truck.”
He remembers one day it rained, he and his cousin slept in. They went to the local café and bar to eat breakfast. “The guy we finished cutting for was there already and he invited us to have a drink.” Cecil said he did not know what a drink was and the only thing he had heard anyone order was a whiskey sour, so he told the guy he’d take one. “Every time we got them down, he’d have the bartender get us another. Finally, we said we had to leave and when we got outside, my younger cousin collapsed on the ground!” 
Cecil remained in Syracuse, helping on the farm, and attended his senior year. It was there he met his future wife, Francis Cole. 
Francis met me at her home. She said, “Oh he didn’t tell you how that happened?” She went on the explain how she walked into history class one morning, but he claims I’m wrong. He was talking to the teacher. I walked in, and they said I grabbed ahold of him, and I never turned loose. I kind of liked him so I guess I didn’t turn loose.”
Francis was born in Harper to Frank and Hazel Cole and her grandparents were Issac and Ora Clore who lived south of Coolidge. The family moved west to farm south of Kendall where she graduated eighth grade. 
Cecil worked at the Sinclair station when in high school, which was where the Love’s is now. He had a car so he would give several a ride home, taking Francis home last. “We started dating our senior year, all of us would drive down to the river, turn on the radio, and dance to the music. We’d go to ballgames and do things around town.” 
Francis’ family faced a difficult time in their lives when her father needed surgery. “They used a new kind of spinal block, which paralyzed him,” He then lived in the veterans hospital but had to return home and Francis cared for him during the summer at night. “But I had to go back to school. Thankfully he was able to go back to the veteran’s hospital. 
At that time, Francis, her mother, and sister Norma Jean moved to Syracuse where she started her freshman year. They moved to Idaho two years after her father died, her mother remarried, and they returned to Syracuse her senior year. Francis remembers her mother worked at the Uptown Café and later the hospital and Francis worked at Daugherty Drug and one summer Yancy’s Dry Cleaners, on Main Street. 
She remembers coming to town to visit her Aunt Esther McNitt, (her mother’s sister) who gave her a dime to go to the Northrup Theatre. 
Francis attended business college in Hutchinson, while Cecil returned to OSU, having saved enough money for college, to study engineering. Francis said they planned to marry in three years, but Cecil didn’t want to wait. They married in three months. “Although I’m not sure I’m married! We got married at 1:00 PM on a Sunday in Syracuse and I think the preacher was missing lunch, so he showed up and said do you or don’t you and goodbye. But after 75 years I think we’re OK.” 
While struggling to pay bills and tuition, Cecil received an offer from his grandfather, who had leased an additional 3,000 acres in Ingalls, to return to Kansas. Cecil said, “How do you turn that down!” 
Francis wanted him to finish college, but he was determined to move to Ingalls to farm. “My comments were not very nice. We lived in a fourteen-foot trailer in Stillwater. The house in Ingalls was little, no glass in the windows and there were rat holes in the floor!” Cecil and the hired man put up glass for windows, covered the rat holes, and they bought some used carpet to cover up the holes. 
But Cecil was convinced to teach school in the Bear Creek Community in southwest Hamilton County for one semester so they returned to Syracuse. “My uncle Merrill O’Brate was on the school board, and said the teacher quit because the students were awful.” Merrill had farming to do at Bear Creek, and begged Cecil to finish out the year. “I agreed, but my wife was not happy.”
Francis, pregnant with their first child had just settled in Ingalls, “The house was somewhat livable, and they were moving into a boxcar! “There were nails on the wall to hang up your clothes, and a two holer out in the yard!” 
Cecil said, “All eight grades were in one room, and there was a coat room on the back. I saw a coping saw, so I had one of the boys find a board and drew on it what I wanted, a paddle and had one of the boys saw it out for me.” He then told them he would not paddle anyone unless he had to but if they got into trouble, they had to paddle each other. “I got them straightened out pretty quick.” 
Francis told a few stories of living on the farm. “We had a cow, twelve fighting roosters, and five hundred chickens which we raised, and I sold eggs to the hatchery.” “One time Cecil bought pigs, thank God they were sick and died because I did not want pigs!” said Francis. She had to take care things, but she was not good with snakes.” 
One day there was one coiled up in the yard and she sent one of the boys to get the gun. “I got one bullet in the gun, the snake was coiled up, I shot him in the head and killed him! Cecil said the snake probably ran into the bullet!” He probably did,” said Francis. 
In 1965, with Garden City as his home and business center, Cecil purchased Palmer Manufacturing and Tank Company, which produces fiberglass and steel tanks for the oil and gas industry. “While I was in college, I did some research at the library about what wealthy people did for a living, and one was oil and gas, that’s what got me started, we drilled a lot of wells,” said Cecil. 
Cecil struggled growing up as a kid and has a passion for helping kids, so he sat on the board of Youthville. “There was a lot of kids in foster care there and I saw a need.” 
The O’Brate Foundation now gives scholarships to students in foster care or those transitioning into independent living and youth who have limited resources, not limited to Finney County. Each year they have 150-160 kids in college, mostly foster care kids. Not limited to Finney County. 
Cecil wants everyone to succeed and do as good as he has, especially kids. He wants to let them know everything is possible. One of the requirements is to have a part time job, because they want kids who are willing to put in the work. 
Cecil has an opportunity to meet each of the recipients during Summer Seminar. They meet at the office, and they bring in a speaker and have a couple breakout sessions where they learn basic life skills such as how to rent an apartment, table etiquette, and what to wear to an interview.  
The foundation employs three advisors, one in Wichita, Manhattan, and Garden City. They help them enroll and become a mentor or advisor. “We want them to be successful, so the advisors help them,” said Cecil, “We have a high retention rate 80 – 90%, part of that is the advisors and part of it is selecting motivated kids, but we don’t just turn them loose!” 
While Cecil did not have any political aspirations, he became acquainted with George W. Bush when he was running for office, “I have a little plane and I flew him around campaigning. We have been close friends ever since.”  
Cecil never played baseball but wanted to donate something back to OSU. “I asked the coach what they needed, and he said a new stadium. I swallowed pretty hard, but we got it done.” It opened in 2020, he and President Bush threw out the first ball. 
“These guys, (who were present at the interview) had me outside practicing,” said Cecil,” I barely got it there!” The catcher was waiting for Cecil to throw the first pitch, and Cecil being the gentleman said go ahead President Bush, you can throw it first. This confused everybody and the guy catching the ball almost missed it, because he was waiting for Cecil and the ball came from the President. 
Francis, an avid reader of The Syracuse Journal, happened to be in the history column in the May 18 issue as one of the students who placed eighth in the state annual scholarship contest conducted by the Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia, she thought that was the reason I was coming to her house to interview her, I enjoy the history part of the paper. I remember the names, it’s interesting.” 
Asking Francis, at what point in your life did you feel like you could relax and enjoy life, she said, “Probably not yet!” 





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