Running for Scholarships

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on April 1, 2001

Leon Combs stands on Brownbranch Hill outside Bradleyville, Mo., (pop. 69). If he listens carefully, he can almost hear the footfalls of more than 500 runners who participated in the town’s fifth annual scholarship fund-raiser last May.

The building where his father operated a grocery store stands nearby. Down the road lies the field where a local farmer paid him $2 a day to haul rocks before spring planting, long before most people in the Ozarks had phones or electricity.

“We didn’t know we were poor,” says Combs, 65, reminiscing about his youth. “We fished and swam in the creek all summer. We had good times.”

When Combs left for college in 1953, he planned never to return. But he did.

Six years ago, Combs, a retired salesman for Josten’s, the national school yearbook company, came home to 3,300 acres of land he’d bought to start a ranch. He had been away a long time, more than 40 years. Within a year of returning, he found a way to help others improve themselves, as he had, through higher education.

Combs got the idea one day while he and his wife, Dot, jogged around the gymnasium at Bradleyville High School. “That made me think about sponsoring a run to raise scholarship money for these kids,” he recalls.

The first thing Combs did was enlist the help of relatives and neighbors. His brother, Joe Combs, who was athletics director before becoming the local superintendent of schools in 1999, and their cousin Lonnie Combs, president of Southern Construction, provided seed money, contacts, and encouragement. Lonnie’s employees bush-hogged a lot for a staging area, and Joe’s students sold sponsorships.

Leon wrote press releases, advertised in Runner’s World for participants, and asked the owner of the local grocery store to contribute sodas and hot dogs. He conceived of selling ads in a booklet filled with stories written by students to give to participants. He invited Mary Goss of Ridge Runners Sports in Springfield, Mo., to administer the race; he asked school secretaries Peggy Hicks and Donna Paul to handle applications; and he invited Debbie Williams (whose husband, Andy, has a theater in nearby Branson) to walk a mile and sign autographs. He also talked with Francis Huss, retired superintendent of St. Louis’ Hazelwood Schools, which holds similar fund-raisers.

“He said runs really succeed if teachers have an incentive, too,” says Combs, “so we offered scholarships for teachers’ continuing education.”

The first Bradleyville 5K Walk/Run brought in $15,000, largely from sales of ads in the souvenir booklet. The run has raised $15,000 each year since and has benefited 52 students. No student who applies for the $1,000 scholarships for college or trade school is turned down.

“They don’t have to be the best academically,” Joe Combs explains. “We want every student to be gainfully employed, and these scholarships encourage them to go on.”

In 1996, three students applied. Last year, half of Bradleyville’s 22 graduating seniors applied.

“Our walk/run shows what can be done when a community pulls together to help its kids,” says Lonnie Combs. “They’re what we live for.”

Leon Combs was the only student in his class to go to college, though he nearly failed his first year. Then, after three years’ discipline in the U.S. Marines, he enrolled at the University of Missouri, where, despite having taken “no math or English to speak of” in high school, Combs was named Outstanding Student in Classical Language as a sophomore.

“That gave me confidence to make it,” he recalls.

He parlayed that confidence into being named top salesman for Josten’s every year for the last 15 of the 25 he worked there.

And he made sure his younger brother went to college. “It was never a question,” says Joe Combs.

Now, the Combses give other students confidence—and cash—to continue their education.

Leon Combs is glad to be home.