In the fall of 1989, Judge Joseph Cirigliano asked Jack Nicklaus to appear at a golf benefit for the Lorain County Community College (LCCC) Foundation. According to LCCC Foundation board member Don Knechtges, the LCCC trustee, then serving as an appellate judge on the Ninth District Court of Appeals, had maintained the sort of longtime personal friendship with the professional golf legend that made requesting such a favor possible.
“Every year, he would go down to Florida and spend a week with Jack and his wife, Barbara, and play golf with Jack,” Knechtges says.
Knechtges goes on to say the philanthropic Nicklaus granted the request, but with one condition: Cirigliano had to assure him that his participation would gross more than $100,000 for the foundation. If Cirigliano could guarantee that, Nicklaus said he would appear, even wave his usual exhibition fee to do so. Cirigliano agreed, and the LCCC Foundation quickly secured $25,000 from four sources to play or sponsor someone to play 18 holes in a fivesome with Nicklaus. The benefit was staged at Elyria Country Club on Aug. 22, 1990.
“Not only did [Joe] get [Jack] to be a part of the benefit, but he got him to put his name on it,” Knechtges says.
The Jack Nicklaus Scholarship Golf Benefit has become an annual event at the club — the only charitable event bearing the Golden Bear’s name, aside from the ones associated with his and his wife’s Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, according to Knechtges. Although Nicklaus only has returned once over the last 30 years — in 2015 to mark the benefit’s 25th anniversary — the outing has boasted appearances by the likes of Columbus native Ben Curtis, nationally televised “18 Holes” hosts Natalie Gulbis and Jimmy Hanlin, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Jan Stephenson, Lee Trevino and Massillon native Tom Weiskopf.
The benefit has generated a permanent endowment of $1.48 million for the LCCC Foundation’s Jack Nicklaus Scholarship Fund, which has awarded nearly $950,000 in scholarships to 1,220-plus LCCC students. According to Lisa Brown, the LCCC Foundation’s executive director, 82 percent of LCCC’s approximately 10,000 students rely on some form of financial aid to attend the school, and 37 percent of them receive scholarships or aid directly from LCCC or the foundation. This year, despite the economic challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the event grossed over $100,000 in sponsorships and contributions.
“When you’re out there on that golf course, you are seeing business leaders from all segments and all sectors coming together to support their community college,” Brown says.
Local business leaders say they do so for one reason: LCCC is an essential element of the community, one that drives innovation and economic development, as well as provides education. Craig Sumner, president of Ridge Tool, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Emerson Electric that employs 600 at its Elyria headquarters, describes both the college and the LCCC Foundation as valuable gems in the company’s own backyard.
The Jack Nicklaus Scholarship Golf Benefit is just another indicator of that, according to Jeff Desich, executive vice chairman of Equity Trust Co., a financial services firm founded in Elyria that employs over 400 people at its Westlake headquarters. He recalls that the precursor to Equity Trust was a sponsor of the first benefit — his father, Richard, played golf with Nicklaus.
“I don’t know of many four-year universities in the country that have a tournament or a fundraiser tied to such a famous name, let alone a community college,” he says. “I think it really speaks to how unique Lorain County Community College is and really to its overall success with an event like this.”
Brown backs up that claim to success with numbers. The school’s “success rate,” defined by the Ohio Department of Higher Education as students still working on an associate degree or transferring to a four-year university or another community college three years after they enroll, is 63 percent.
In 2018, LCCC was designated No. 1 in the nation for student success by the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. Last year, it was ranked in the nation’s top 150 community colleges by the global nonprofit Aspen Institute.
Joe McAleese, former chief executive officer and chairman of Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems — one of Lorain County’s biggest employers with 700 employees at its Elyria facility — calls LCCC “a critical cog in the transition from heavy automotive manufacturing.” Sumner concurs. He, like McAleese, have worked with LCCC on developing curricula.
“They’re doing a lot of stuff around manufacturing and automation, which is big for us as we try to automate our plants,” Sumner says. “And, they’ve added new programs around additive manufacturing and other things that are of particular interest to us.”
According to Brown, McAleese and Sumner are not alone. “LCCC and our leadership is always out there asking the community leaders, ‘How can we better serve you? We’re your community college. What type of training programs do you need? What type of talent do you need?’” she says. Responding to those questions helps the school prepare its students to fill local jobs, such as the software engineering positions at Ridge Tool that Sumner mentions. Brown surmises that it’s one reason why over 85 percent of LCCC students remain in the area after graduation.
“So many programs are now built to be earn-and-learn models, where they have internships that take them right to the front doors or inside these organizations,” she says.
Desich says LCCC has served Equity Trust as a source of qualified employees through the school’s own courses of study, as well as its University Partnership, a program that allows students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from an array of state schools by taking classes led by those partner institutions’ instructors right on the LCCC campus or online. He adds that the Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise, a regional innovation center, resource hub and business incubator located on the LCCC campus, was instrumental in assisting the firm in navigating a period of explosive growth from 2000 to 2005.
“We really didn’t know how to handle it,” he says. “We partnered with GLIDE… and they provided consultants to help us and support us.”
McAleese notes that LCCC’s impact extends beyond Lorain County employers and their employees to their families. He gives his own family as an example.
“My son took significant classes at LCCC,” McAleese says. “My wife took significant classes at LCCC, and my stepson just finished his two-year degree from LCCC.”
Both he and Desich point to innovative programs, such as College Credit Plus and Early College High School, which give Lorain County high-school students — some of whom are looking to become the first in their families to attend college — the opportunity to earn college credits, all of which are transferable to state universities, as well as LCCC, before they ever graduate with a diploma.
“I know employees at Equity Trust Co. whose kids literally graduated high school with an associate degree or pretty close to it,” Desich says. “So, when money isn’t always there to pay for tuition and to go to college, to come out of high school with essentially two years of college already is a huge boost.”
Those programs are just one example of how LCCC draws a diverse community together to support an institution that benefits all. Desich says that equals the importance of the school’s role in supporting local businesses.
“No matter where you’re from within Lorain County, it’s kind of like a neutral ground, if you will,” he says. “Everybody recognizes, regardless of what you feel about this or that, at the end of the day, we need to have a very strong community college in our community to keep us growing and moving in the right direction.”