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Zenon C.R. Hansen

A photo of Zenon C.R. Hansen at his desk with his bulldog.

Amid the rolling rangeland and corn fields of southeastern Nebraska sits a small boomerang-shaped lake surrounded by 300 acres of trees, brick buildings and 1,100 students searching for wisdom, experience and their futures.

This is Doane University and the home of the Hansen Leadership Program. A spirit dwells here amid the promise and enthusiasm of youth, the legacy of a man from humble beginnings who never went to college but loved education, who never had money growing up but made millions, a man who simply tried to do a good turn daily and wound up helping countless thousands less fortunate than himself.

His name was Zenon Clayton Raymond Hansen (July 23, 1909 - October 19, 1990).

Charisma, hard work and community service were some of Zenon's hallmark leadership traits. When a problem or need arose in his life, in his business or community, he acted and, more often than not, took charge. Leadership came easily for him. "Lead, follow or get out of the way - make a difference" was Zenon's motto, said Earl L. Wright, a longtime friend, financial advisor, and Board member to the Zenon C.R. Hansen Foundation.

Zenon exhibited his penchant for leadership at an early age. After becoming an Eagle Scout at age 16, he decided to organize and run his own Boy Scout troop in Sioux City, Iowa, but ran into a snag. A scoutmaster needed to be 18 and Zenon was too young. Harry A. Hoskins, who chaired scouting's Court of Honor in Sioux City, recalled how the dynamo Zenon recruited him for the Scoutmaster job by promising to be Hoskins assistant and do all the work. Thus, Troop One was born. 

Perhaps the best affirmation of Zenon's leadership ability came in 1965 when he took over the financially floundering Mack Trucks. "Zenon went into Mack Trucks and didn't replace a man," Mr. Wright said. "He went in there with the entire team that was failing and had problems, and worked with that team. It remained the same management team during his entire 10-year tenure at Mack Trucks." 

Zenon had an uninhabited desire to succeed and help others achieve their full potential regardless of their social or economic circumstances. We all have faults. However, the real measure of success in Zenon's mind was not that faults had to be corrected, but how you reached your full human potential considering the uniqueness of who you were.  

Zenon was one of those people without a degree, but he was a lifelong learner and supporter of higher education. In the end, he proved his commitment to higher education with his Foundation's endowments to Doane, which totals more than $4 million. 

Zenon was a leader, friend, supporter, industrial innovator, entrepreneur, community advocate, and maverick for good causes. Being popular was not his highest priority, however, "making a difference" in the world was. 

Legacy of Leadership: 

A life-sized bronze bas relief of Zenon's Profile hangs above the entrance to Doane University's Hansen Leadership Hall in Crete, Nebraska, seemingly watching over and assessing all who come and go. It's as if he's still asking questions: 

  • Can you work hard? 
  • Will you make a difference? 
  • Are you a leader? 

This is where his spirit dwells, where his legacy lives on, still leading, still helping others decades after his passing. The three-story residence hall, home to 175 students, was built in 2000 at a cost of $5 million, $1.5 million of which came from The Zenon C.R. Hansen Foundation. Administered by Zenon's friend and financial advisor, Earl Wright and the company he founded, AMG National Trust Bank, the Foundation has taken an initial endowment of less than $4 million, invested it wisely and ultimately given away about $21 million, mainly funding scholarships and education-related endeavors (Legacy of Leadership, pg. 52).

The Foundation is one of Doane's largest benefactors, and Hansen's name pops up everywhere on campus: Hansen Leadership Hall, Hansen Leadership Program, Hansen Leadership Room, Hansen Speakers Series and Hansen Minor in Leadership Studies. Zenon and leadership are nearly synonymous at Doane, which is located about 30 miles southwest of Lincoln, Nebraska. His legacy is a part of the fabric of the University, which is remarkable because he had no close connection to Doane or Crete, a prairie town of about 7,000 people.

He initially became curious about Doane after being impressed by a young employee who was also a graduate. Mr. Wright and his wife Nancy Seacrest Wright, both natives of Lincoln, had been involved in Doane fundraising for decades, and it was those ties that led Zenon to the University.

"He identified with the kids who where there. He saw himself" said Mr. Wright, who first brought Zenon to Doane's campus in the 1980s. "They're just good-hardworking, common-sense kids with midwestern values, and they're so malleable. You put them in a good educational environment and good things can happen."

So Zenon, who had no surviving children or close relatives, made sure a large chunk of his estate benefited this small liberal-arts school. And just like that, he had more than a thousand heirs, the students of Doane and in particular the 32 annual participants in the Hansen Leadership Program. The innovative program is dedicated to empowering students to contribute to a more socially responsible world with authenticity and conviction.

"I definitely couldn't have done it without the Zenon Scholarship." said Cammie Schwartz, who hails from a ranch just outside of Mullen, Nebraska. Schwartz double majored in computer systems and art with an emphasis in graphic design. Outside of getting a job and continuing her community service, her plans for life after graduation are simple, "I hope I can be the leader that other people have been for me."

Zenon would be smiling.

His spirit lives on in Cammie Schwartz and the other students in the Hansen Leadership Program, principled and dedicated young men and women who want to make a difference - it's the stuff of which leaders are made.

Learn more about Zenon C.R. Hansen in the Book Legacy of Leadership Zenon C.R. Hansen, written by Steve Myers.