Kokomo — Bob Knowling remembered his first-grade teacher taking pity on his single pair of loose-soled shoes and quietly giving him a new pair of Buster Browns one day after class. He remembered his mother crying about those new shoes. He remembered catching catfish and bass in Wildcat Creek with his father as a child to help feed his large family. He remembered pulling a wagon to the welfare office to pick up flour and processed meat and peanut butter and cheese. He remembered when a man made a scathing comment about his mother begging, that they never went to the welfare office again.
Most notably, though, he remembered the Kokomo YMCA — his “second home.” When his mother told her flock of children that they could go to the Y and simply needed to enroll, he took off running. In more ways than one, the Kokomo facility kept him afloat in difficult times.
“One day, some older kids tossed me into the deep end of the pool and I immediately sank and started swallowing water,” he writes in his book. “I started to swim and I have never stopped.”
Wednesday, many years and countless experiences later, Knowling came back home. Now the chairman of consulting firm Eagles Landing Partners and past CEO of companies like Telwares, SimDesk Technologies and Covad Communications, Knowling has a resume studded with both accomplishments and downfalls — like being pushed out of his job at Covad when the company floundered amid the dot-com bubble burst.
Knowling visited the YMCA Wednesday to speak to HUDDLE, a men’s Bible study group that meets weekly, and sign copies of his book, “You Can Get There From Here: My Journey from Struggle to Success.” More than 200 men attended. In the evening, he spoke at a private event for staff and volunteers for the YMCA, as well as community leaders.
The businessman has spoken in front of crowds of 20,000 people. He’s met with heads of state in Brunei, Singapore and Thailand.
“I have not been in any environment where I have ever felt nervous,” he said.
But returning here to the YMCA was a different story. He credits the facility with teaching him character, values and Christianity.
“My stomach has been knotted up since Monday about coming home,” he said to the HUDDLE crowd. “I am so humbled to be in your presence.”
He said as he walked the steps up to the YMCA’s doors, he was trembling. He was immediately reminded of the kind woman at the front desk, who welcomed him, a 6-year-old black boy when all but a few Y members were white, into the facility and showed him around. The boy whose only dream was to wear a white shirt and tie and make enough money to take care of his mother.
“I got really emotional walking into the building because this is where it all started,” he said. “How does a poor boy from Kokomo do the kinds of stuff that I’ve done?”
Kokomo YMCA Executive Director Dave Dubois said Knowling exemplifies the values of the YMCA.
“The extraordinary success he’s had and the credit that he gives this Y is very cool to me,” Dubois said. “Bob also represents the work the Y does so incredibly well. Bob had a platform in the book to say what this Y has meant to him. And to me, that’s extraordinary.”
Since his early involvement with the YMCA, Knowling has been very involved in leadership for the YMCA worldwide, and has said he will help the Kokomo YMCA fund the construction of its new facility.
“Usually you think of a business big-wig and you think of a guy that’s hard-driving and pushy, and he is so humble and gentle and crediting God for all of his success,” said Dick Sanburn, HUDDLE board member. “You just don’t see that very much.”
Knowling said Monday that he hopes his visit reminds people to appreciate where they come from, but to strive for greatness.
“This is the only place on the planet where the position you’re born in the world doesn’t define you,” he said. “You can do anything you want to do.”
Megan Graham is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. She can be reached by phone at 765-454-8570, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter at @megancgraham.