A lifetime of thrift leads to extraordinary gift

Rudolph R. Elis, a bachelor farmer from Verdigre, believed in hard work, living within one’s means, saving and investing.

According to those who knew him, Elis didn’t believe in handouts and was not into charitable giving — at least not in the traditional sense.

After making sure he had finances to cover his health care needs as he grew older, Elis created an estate gift to be used by rural communities that were working to stay vibrant. He recognized those characteristics in Norfolk and in Holt County, so before he died, he established an endowment with Nebraska Community Foundation to provide funding for economic development, youth engagement and people attraction.

The Elis endowment, valued at $2.3 million in 2009, has grown to $4.8 million as of June 2017, all the while providing grants totaling well over $500,000 to the communities whose people Rudy Elis admired.

Norfolk’s share of the annual earnings from the endowment is well over $100,000 each year, and it will continue to grow. The Nebraska Community Foundation is proud to honor Elis’ desire to invest in forward thinking communities like Norfolk and those in Holt County.

“This bequest was profoundly important to the work of Nebraska Community Foundation,” said Jeff Yost, foundation president and CEO. “For many years, we have talked about people attraction to generate new wealth in our hometowns. With his gift, Mr. Elis gave us a great model to share with others.”

One recent example is last week’s ribbon-cutting for the new addition at Norfolk High School that will house some of the new career academies. A three-year annual commitment of nearly $47,000 from the Elis endowment was pooled with numerous public and private investments to kick off Norfolk’s career academies last year.

Initially, about 50 students signed up for career path exploration classes; this year 100 more joined the program, tripling enrollment to about 150 students.

Unlike some high school career academies, at Norfolk classes are offered in the same school building as other classes. Career academy students take many of the same core classes with non-academy students.

But they can choose to enroll in a number of courses that allow them to test and develop their interest in a wide range of career paths: plant and animal agriculture; construction; drafting; early childhood development; culinary arts; health sciences; automotive; metals; and business and technology, which includes finance, marketing, business administration and information technology.

Many of the academies offer job certification opportunities, work-based learning, and student organization opportunities, such as SkillsUSA, FFA and FBLA.

Jeff Hoffman, who serves as the academy coordinator, said the experience is more than career education happening in the classroom; it is a full experience promoting career and college readiness. The focus is not only on technical skills, but also “soft skills” employers are looking for. Personal behaviors, such as teamwork, punctuality, appropriate communication, even good eye contact, are all important for a quality workforce.

Hoffman said local business involvement continues to grow, with many business leaders serving on advisory teams and visiting with students to explain what they are looking for and what classes will give students a leg up. Northeast Community College also serves in an advisory role and is increasing availability to dual credit courses.

Kicking off such an ambitious program has inspired Hoffman, who returned to Norfolk with his family after living and working for about 20 years elsewhere.

“My wife and I are extremely happy to be back home. My dream is to help students explore their passions. It’s an opportunity that just wasn’t available in the past,” he said.

The career academies are an important tool for creating a talent pipeline for the community’s future workforce. That is one of the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce’s key strategies for meeting workforce demand and community needs for economic growth.

Since 2010, the Rudolph Elis Fund has invested in a number of programs to assess and plan for economic and community development in Norfolk. It’s most recent three-year, $50,000 annual commitment is assisting the Norfolk Now workforce steering committee to reach both within and beyond the community to attract young people to Norfolk.

Brittnay Dawson, the chamber’s director of talent development and recruitment, said, “We need to do something drastically different in our approach to sourcing needed talent. Now more than ever, employers are taking a proactive approach.”

Her office directs a number of people attraction initiatives. The smartly styled Norfolk Now website offers a free job board for employers within a 60-mile radius. Videos of local industry tours are a fun and engaging behind-the-scenes look at local workforce partners, and highlight career pathways for students into local jobs.

A mentorship program for both high school and college students provide real-life experience working with clients and their projects. Students are integrated into the business and marketing community, and enjoy opportunities to shadow local professionals.

These and other efforts aimed at connecting young professionals and promoting the community through social media and traditional channels are all part of creating the kind of vibrant community Rudy Elis knew in his heart was possible, even though he could have never envisioned how it would actually look.

Elis never went to high school, and he was never seen in anything other than his overalls and work shirt. But when it came to managing money, he considered himself “pretty good for an eighth-grader.”

Elis died at the age of 92 in September 2007, and was buried in a pair of overalls and a work shirt that he had personally selected. His values of hard work and self-reliance will live on through investments in hard-working people for generations.