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IU Northwest News

‘Education is the key to everything’

In return for their own success, Tom and Sylvia Collins say it’s their responsibility to give back to bolster people, communities

Tuesday Apr 14, 2015

Sitting down with Tom and Sylvia Collins in their Chicago lakefront high-rise condominium, a warm and welcoming couple with deep ties to Indiana University, it’s clear you are in the company of folks who have done as well for others as they have for themselves.

Stories of their adventures are certainly fun to hear, but it is their lifetime of giving back that prompted a recent visit. Their philanthropy has touched Indiana University Northwest, and so many others, in countless ways.

With a great mind for numbers, Tom has been extraordinarily successful in business, allowing the couple to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. The Collins, who also live in the Miller Beach area of Gary, are equally down-to-earth, humble and generous.

During a conversation about his upbringing, Tom reveals some early financial struggles and you begin to learn that the Collins’ lifestyle was well-earned, but also that they have a long list of people to thank for their success.

They owe much of their success to education, they both say, as well as the many mentors they’ve had throughout their lives who helped guide them. Hard to believe, in fact, that higher education was once a tough sell for Tom, a native of Danville, Ill. who holds an MBA from Western New England University and is an alumna of Eastern Illinois University.

“Six weeks from graduating high school, I wasn’t going to college. I had a chance to go the local GM plant and get a job and own a brand new Corvette with my first paycheck and that’s what I was going to do.”

But choosing college instead was the right choice, he says, and he is grateful he resisted the urge for fast money and listened to the folks who steered him toward other opportunities. Tom’s family was poor, he said, and he had to work 70 hours a week and borrow money in order to get through school.

Coming from an educated family in Miller, Sylvia always new she’d go to college. She earned a degree in elementary education from IU, followed by a master’s degree from Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. She spent 23 years teaching art to kids, mostly in Indianapolis and Portage.

Returning favors

The Collins believe their success comes with a hefty responsibility -- an obligation, in fact.

“Those kind of mentors, you never forget that,” Tom said. “When I was fortunate enough to do well in business, I thought, ‘the first thing I need to do is become one of those people.’ ”

And so they both did. As the conversation continues, you learn that as many places as they’ve traveled in their lives, they’ve likely helped at least that many people. The Collins have a long list of causes they support, most of which involve helping kids, and mostly in Northwest Indiana.

Perhaps most significant though, is the support they give to students of IU Northwest, in the form of scholarships.

“When we saw an opportunity to do something where kids would get to go to college that might not otherwise get to go to college, we thought that is a good idea,” Tom said. “One day I said, ‘let’s try to get a few hundred thousand dollars together and create a scholarship that will last forever.’ We were fortunate enough to do that.”

A profound contribution

They established the Sylvia Collins Scholarship in the mid-1990s. As an endowed scholarship fund, it will live on indefinitely from the investment alone. This particular endeavor is one of their most cherished contributions. Five people benefitted last year alone. As long as the students continue to qualify, the scholarships will be renewed for each year of their education.

Through their scholarship fund, the Collins know they are not only helping individuals who might not otherwise have been able to afford an education, but they are helping Northwest Indiana thrive. When the Collins consider those five students who were awarded their scholarship last year, they know their gift will reverberate throughout Northwest Indiana for generations.

“Those students, I think, will also feel an obligation to give back. And they will go on to solve problems and contribute to their communities, most likely right here in the region,” Sylvia said. “Education is the key to everything.”

“If you get an education, no matter what happens in the world, you are going to know how to do something about it,” Tom explained. “It feeds upon itself. If you are fortunate enough to be able to help someone else get an education, they are going to do the same thing down the road for someone else. One way or another, they are going to be more productive and they are going to do more for society than if they didn’t get the education.”

Sylvia said she has met a few of the recent scholarship recipients. Many of them have also written thank you letters.

“That is nice,” Sylvia said. “It makes it so much more personal. It’s nice to know where your money is going. It makes you want to keep giving. I like that personal contact.”

Deep ties to IU

Tom’s connection to IU was through diving workouts that his Eastern Illinois coach shared with IU’s Hobie Billingsly, considered one of history’s most influential figures in diving.

“He invited us to work out with them,” Tom said. “IU had two or three of the best divers in the world at the time. I had the opportunity to spend a week working out with them, so I’ve always had a soft spot for IU.”

The Collins have three children, two of which attended IU, along with Tom’s nephew, who works alongside him in his company. The company, Clark Street Development, largely builds shopping centers in the U.S. and in India, which is where half the company’s employees are based.

Sylvia quipped that she chose IU because it was a better looking campus than Purdue, where her brother attended. However, the real reason to choose IU, and to support IU, the Collins say, goes beyond skin-deep.

“There are a lot of higher education institutions that you could support. Very few of them do the job as well as Indiana University. Very few,” Tom said. “You get a better education. It’s a better run school. I think they are more forward-thinking. I think they don’t waste money like a lot of schools do. They are picky about who they admit but not so picky that you can’t get in, especially if you live in the state. They do a lot of things right. There are very few campuses like IU in the country. The school in total does an extraordinary job of educating young people. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t be helping because all you’re doing then is helping somebody that isn’t doing a good job.”

A gift with unlimited dividends

But the Collins’s commitment to IU Northwest, in particular, is perhaps even more profound because of the exponential effects they both described.

Tom believes that education here in Northwest Indiana is really the key to the future development and success of the region itself.

“If you don’t educate the people in your own area, you are just going to be importing people from other areas who are going to take jobs that people in your area aren’t going to get. It’s just that simple,” he said. “Your unemployment is going to rise while people are imported from other areas for great jobs.”

That said, he feels “it’s a pretty easy call” as far as where to designate his philanthropy.

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