Hobart and William Smith Colleges Director of Athletic Communications Ken DeBolt will be presented with the 2015 Bob Kenworthy Community Service Award at this year’s College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) convention in June.
The Bob Kenworthy Community Service Award is presented annually to a member of CoSIDA for civic involvement and accomplishments outside of the sports information office. Kenworthy served as the sports information director at Gettysburg College and was the first recipient of the award. He is a CoSIDA Hall of Famer.
The following story was posted on CoSIDA.com and written by Ira Thor, New Jersey City University Director of Sports Information/CoSIDA Board of Directors
The word hero is loosely tossed around in the world of sports. The ability to throw a game-winning touchdown or score an overtime goal doesn’t constitute the making of a hero.
A hero is an individual who, often under the radar, demonstrates courage and bravery and is admired for those qualities. There is no finer example of heroism in our profession than Ken DeBolt of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, CoSIDA’s 2015 Bob Kenworthy Community Service Award recipient.
When you mention the term hero in his presence, DeBolt will downplay the adjective. Most heroes do. But what he has quietly done for the community of Geneva, New York for more than 20 years, without any fanfare, and while balancing the demands of a successful athletic communications career and family life, is nothing short of admirable.
You see, while many sports information directors are putting out fires on gameday—managing multiple home events, media requests, and an events staff—Ken DeBolt is also putting out fires—literally—as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Geneva CJ Folger Hook and Ladder Company. A five-time selection as his ladder company’s Volunteer Firefighter of the Year, DeBolt has given his time and put his own life on the line, all while overseeing one of the most unique athletic departments in NCAA Division III.
While many SIDs have their iPhone buzzing with Twitter notifications, when DeBolt’s pager goes off, that alert may indicate someone’s life is hanging in the balance.
The Bob Kenworthy Community Service Award has been presented annually since 1995 to a member of the profession for civic/community involvement and accomplishments outside of the sports information office. The honor is named for Kenworthy (Gettysburg), the first recipient of the award and a member of the CoSIDA Hall of Fame.
Two years prior to the first award being bestowed, DeBolt, now 40, turned 18 years ago and following in the footsteps of his father Ralph, himself the chief of the fire department, was accepted as a member of the truck company.
As it turns out, bravery is in the genes. His father, originally a volunteer as well, retired as a firefighter after 30 years of service and his sister, Michelle, has made the family business her occupation.
“I can remember as a kid, I’m on my bike hearing sirens and pedaling after them, or being in the house with my dad and his pager goes off and jumping in the car and going with him,” DeBolt recalled. “I was putting out imaginary fires around the house as a kid. It never got old to me.”
When DeBolt turned 18 and was old enough to join the truck company himself, his father was surprised when he asked for an application. When he left the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York to attend the University of Dayton (where he majored in sports management with a minor in journalism) he continued his social membership with the department, always intending to return home.
DeBolt, who was a high school baseball athlete, admits sports have always been a part of his life and his mental makeup, but like others in the profession, stumbled upon sports information. “I had no idea this world even existed.”
That changed when he returned to Geneva after graduating early from Dayton in December 1995. H accepted a six-month internship at Hobart and William Smith where he learned under then-SID Eric Reuscher, current Hobart athletic director Mike Hanna and former William Smith athletic director Susan Bassett. Six months later he was hired at Roanoke College, spending two and a half years in southwestern Virginia before having the opportunity to return to HWS in January 1999. He has been there ever since.
“[Graduating mid-year], there were not a ton of people applying for internships at that point of the year and I was lucky enough I got it [the internship at HWS] and I could live at home, and that was my ticket into sports information,” DeBolt said.
“This is home and I have no desire to leave. I have a great group of people and we have great opportunities to host championship events. We’ve been successful and this is home and that’s a big part.”
“I’m fortunate to work at an institution where there’s a priority put on service in the community,” DeBolt added, noting that current Colleges’ president Mark Gearan was previously the Director of the Peace Corps under President Bill Clinton.
Mike Hanna, Director of Athletics for the Hobart program, said: “When we hired Ken in 1999, he didn’t insist on a certain salary level or office space. The only request he had was that he be allowed to serve as a volunteer member of the City of Geneva Fire Department. Knowing this wasn’t just an interest of his but a heartfelt commitment, we agreed to it with the provision that we would monitor his involvement to be sure it did not detract from his “day job” at HWS.
“We’ve never needed to have a discussion on the topic. He performs at a high level at HWS and in his service to our community. On average, Ken responds to 100-125 fire calls each year. Without hesitation and for the welfare of others, at times he finds himself in harm’s way. As a citizen, sports information director and firefighter, Ken DeBolt is indeed the very good fortune of the Colleges and of our community.”
Deb Steward, the Director of Athletics for the William Smith program added “Given the time required to do his job so thoroughly on a daily basis, it is remarkable the commitment Ken has to the Geneva community.”
Since returning to Geneva full-time in 1999, DeBolt has dedicated his life outside of his career and family to the public service that was ingrained in him growing up and emphasized by his institution.
His truck company, one of three fire companies in the city of Geneva, focuses on ventilation and search and rescue responsibilities. DeBolt stressed that the city is unique, because while companies nationally are struggling to find volunteers, Geneva has an abundance.
That’s important because DeBolt, now a veteran firefighter who has held the positions of first lieutenant, captain and financial secretary, notes that there’s a lot of trust between fire company members. Trust is the key to getting over the fear of putting one’s self in potentially dangerous situations. When DeBolt was a younger firefighter, he would follow those experienced volunteers and mimicked what others in his spot did, including emulating his own father.
“In a lot of ways it’s like sports,” DeBolt said. “We’re a team. There’s training and muscle memory. You’re not thinking about it [the fear]. I trust in my training, the people around me and my equipment. When my pager goes off, it’s like the opening whistle. There’s a boost of adrenaline. It’s like it’s game time; let’s do this. There’s a degree of difficulty and risk which is what makes it different.
“We are fortunate we have so many dedicated volunteers. I don’t even see it as heroic. The Hollywood stuff doesn’t happen; that’s once in a lifetime stuff.”
That’s not to say that DeBolt isn’t ever afraid in a situation. It’s just not something he spends much time thinking about.
“You just do it and don’t think about it too much. You evaluate the risk versus reward. I remember there was once a house fire and three of us were venting the roof. When you’re done, you have a half a second to look around. The roof was actually sagging away from the ladder.”
While DeBolt may not encounter scenes similar to the 1991 film Backdraft, that doesn’t make his efforts any less stressful or hazardous and the outcome any less challenging.
“Any kind of structure fire is a dangerous situation,” DeBolt noted. “It can go sideways and you never know when. One time when I was in my late 20s, there was a fire in an apartment, which we believed was arson. I may have crawled through the accelerant and came out with holes in my gear. I didn’t look down and was on fire. [The fear] is not something I put a lot of time thinking about. I’ve never had to jump out a window or spend time in a hospital.”
It’s also difficult to keep your emotions in check when lives are at stake.
“It’s never easy when there’s a fatal fire,” DeBolt expressed. “But it’s not always fires we respond to. We go with the local ambulance service or respond to serious calls. Sometimes there’s nothing that can be done and it’s frustrating. You want to be able to fix it and help people. You wonder what could have been done. I remember the first time I had to give CPR and I didn’t sleep for 12 hours afterwards. It bothers you and you learn to deal with it, buts it’s not easy and that’s probably the toughest part.”
Like sports information, the hours are irregular and unpredictable. The amount of time DeBolt spends as a volunteer is often dependent on not only when he can responsibly be away from the office, but also on what the actual emergency is. A call can be as simple as blowing smoke out of a home caused by burnt food. He has even helped respond to emergencies on his own campus.
But there have been nights where a gasoline tanker truck has rolled over, dumping its entire load into a drainage ditch and DeBolt and his colleagues have been on site from 8 p.m. until the sun rose the next day.
Prior to having a family of his own with wife Janine—daughter Emily (8) and son Joey (5)—DeBolt also spent six years as a part-time 9-1-1 dispatcher from 2000-06, often working major holidays so those with families could spend time with theirs. He often looks back at that time in his life and asks himself ‘how did I manage that?’
Those who his hear his story and understand his dedication to his community, his family and his profession will probably wonder how he can manage such a demanding schedule today.
To be able to pull off all his responsibilities, DeBolt acknowledges that when there’s an event on campus, his ability to respond will vary, and he has to use his best judgement. He relies on his communications staff, including assistants Paige Mullin and Mackenzie Larsen, to balance community service and overseeing HWS’ 23 sports.
“I play this ‘should I or shouldn’t I game in my head’, whether I can respond,” DeBolt confessed. “Sometimes it’s based on where it [the emergency] is. We have so many volunteers in Geneva that if I know there’s going to be a good response and it takes a while to get there, I can’t. We don’t get privileges that the police and ambulance get to blow red lights. If it’s going to take seven minutes to get there and I know we’ll have a good response and I’m sitting on a work deadline, I won’t go, whereas if it’s right around the corner, I’m like ‘holy cow’ and will respond.”
“There are times my work has to be the priority. I’ve sat courtside working a basketball game and my pager goes off and in that scenario, obviously I can’t leave.”
Often that decision to respond overlaps into his work/life balance when he’s home with his family.
“I have a saint of a wife,” he lovingly said about his wife, Janine. “There’s a lot of times we sit down to eat dinner and my pager goes off and out I run to the latest emergency. I’m gone a couple nights each month for training sessions for the department.”
In addition to firefighting, DeBolt has served his community in many other roles. He is a holiday bell ringer for the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign, has participated with the community lunch program, assists with various educational events during Fire Prevention Week, participates in the Relay for Life, and has even coached youth T-ball. He also has been a member of the Sons of the American Legion for more than 20 years.
DeBolt has done this while overseeing the athletic communication efforts for an institution with a unique setup—two colleges competing as one. Hobart College, the men’s athletic program, contends as the Statesmen. Meanwhile, William Smith College, the women’s program, competes as the Herons.
Together, the programs have won four national championships since DeBolt returned to campus in 1999—most recently the 2013 Division III women’s soccer crown.
This spring, the Hobart football program received unprecedented national attention, when center/tackle Ali Marpet was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 61st overall pick in the NFL Draft’s second round. DeBolt fielded phone calls from media outlets like ESPN and the Associated Press while assisting crews from the NFL Network on campus.
It was national attention rarely seen at the Division III level, and DeBolt and his staff handled it like champions. But that should come as no surprise once one understands his makeup and character, and the challenges he successfully tackles every day.
One of the most rewarding moments for DeBolt and other community heroes of the community is when they hear from someone they have helped or saved. Yet for DeBolt, praise is never the objective, as, in his words, ‘you are just doing your job.’
He admits that being on stage to accept the Kenworthy Award at the June Convention will be a struggle, as he’s more comfortable nominating people for awards or presenting them than receiving one. But this humble real-life community hero certainly is appreciative.
“I am grateful and appreciate receiving the Kenworthy Award,” DeBolt concluded. “There’s a sarcastic side of me that says there has to be someone better [for this award] out there. It’s going to be a different experience. It’s very special.”