Full Circle – Abilene

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene

Life decisions are shrouded in the mystery of an unknown future.

Leaving a small town like Abilene, Kansas for a chance at a better life could be the right or wrong choice.

How do you know?


The Backstory

It was June 1992 and I had finally completed my college education. A grueling 6-year effort in a 3-year program, full of twists, turns, and life events that nearly derailed my entire plan for earning a Bachelor’s degree. The journey culminated with my first career position as a Computer Programmer in the small town of Abilene, Kansas with a local company called Duckwall-ALCO Stores.

Duckwall-ALCO was a regional retailer, operating a chain of about 200 small-town general merchandise stores across the Central USA. I was hired to develop and support their retail merchandising systems.

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene

A few years prior, in 1989, I had worked my way into a career-related position as a Computer Operator. Only 21 years old and struggling in nearly every aspect of my young adult life, I was a full-time student and a newly-wed with a child on the way. I was working full-time, overnight hours in the mainframe computer room at the JC Penney Distribution Center in Lenexa, Kansas, catching-up on reading and homework assignments during breaktime.

After work, I usually arrived home around 2:30am and collapsed into bed until about 6:30am, waking up for 7:00am class. As you can probably imagine, those few short hours of sleep were often interrupted after my son was born. I spent the first-half of the day in the classroom, in the laboratory, or in the library learning about Computer Information Systems at DeVRY Institute of Technology in Kansas City, Missouri.

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene
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When classes were done, my afternoon was typically spent at a minimum wage job earning extra income to help make ends meet. I held various part-time jobs during those years as a cashier, stocker, dishwasher, or painting houses. Then it was back to the JC Penney computer room for the evening shift. I even worked weekends as often as I could, doing a variety of jobs for my dad’s small business.

That was my typical pattern of existence from 1986-1992. Thank goodness for youth, tenacity, and caffeine! Mountain Dew and Vivarin were my college companions! The pattern changed many times during those years, which explains why it took me 6 years to finish a 3-year program.

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When I changed my major, I had to switch between morning and afternoon classes. Similarly, my employer changed my work schedule multiple times, moving me from nights-to-days and back again. Even DeVRY themselves switched class schedules on me more than once!

Every time one of those changes occurred, it was incredibly disruptive and challenging to re-align work and school schedules. On more than one occasion I had no choice but to skip an entire semester to accommodate the schedule change with the next session.

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene

It was a formula for burn-out, clearly not sustainable … a full-time student + a full-time job + a part-time job + a wife and children (my daughter arrived in 1990).

I cannot tell you how happy I was to finally graduate and land that big job in Abilene in 1992.

I was more than ready to leave those hard days behind and start the next chapter of my life.

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I loved Abilene. It was a small town of about 6,000 in 1992 with an interesting Old West history. At the end of the famous Chisholm Trail, cowboys and outlaws roamed the dusty streets and saloons looking for trouble in the late 1800’s.

Abilene earned the reputation as a lawless wild west town, requiring bold lawmen of the times, like Tom Smith and Wild Bill Hickok, to enforce their hard brand of frontier justice. Abilene celebrates that western heritage with rodeo events, and Old Abilene Town hosts Chisholm Trail Days, complete with a live cattle drive, gunfight reenactors, and country music shows.

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene
For me, Ike’s lasting legacy is how he served America during World War II.

Another claim to fame is Abilene’s favorite native son.

One of the city’s most iconic attractions is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.

The museum and Boyhood Home attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

I toured the exhibits many times and was always inspired by the life and times of Old Ike.

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Abilene reminded me of where I grew up, Odessa Missouri. Mostly agricultural, farming and ranching is a common family business. With two small children it seemed like the perfect place to raise my family, so we settled-in and began to build a life there.

We made many friends in the Abilene community. My wife took a part-time job, we joined a church, and I got involved with local law enforcement as a volunteer police officer. See related story, Full Circle – April 19, 1995.

The Duckwall-ALCO job was awesome. It was my first experience as a salaried professional in the corporate ranks. Admittedly, I was only a rookie and my salary was meager, but I felt a sense of joy and accomplishment every morning as I entered the sparkling front lobby in my business attire, when I roamed the busy hallways to my office, and when I conducted meetings in the well-appointed conference rooms.

Life was good in Abilene … a far cry from the craziness I was living before. I began to believe that Abilene could be my forever-home. As I patrolled various high school sporting events as a volunteer police officer, I imagined my own kids competing one day as student athletes, or as spectators sitting in the very bleachers I was watching.

Then, one day in 1995, I was contacted by a recruiting firm from Chicago. They presented a job and salary opportunity that stirred my big-eyed dreams for an even better life. Youth and ambition rose to the surface. The young man in me who wanted more, who wanted to climb the corporate ladder, could not resist the temptation. So, in September of 1995 I loaded up a U-Haul trailer and left Abilene for a new life chapter.

The Full Circle Moment

In the years that followed, I visited Abilene a couple times as I passed by during road trips along Interstate-70. It was nice to see familiar places and faces, but over time the memories faded and the years rolled by without ever seeing the old town again.

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene
Cheri and the RV at Cottonwood Pass, Colorado.

It was 21 years later that I found myself there once again.

Almost to the day, in September of 2016, Cheri & I were on the way back to Kansas City from a fantastic RV vacation in Colorado and the Mountain West.

See my series of RV Life stories titled, A Trial Run.

I knew I would be passing by Abilene that day and had already planned to make a drive through the old town. I cruised along the main road, called Buckeye Avenue, and noticed several changes right away. The former flagship ALCO store in town was no longer there, and the old hometown Pizza Hut had a modern new structure on the opposite side of the road from where it used to be. Other familiar names I remembered from the 90’s were gone, replaced by different names and new structures.

I turned west at 7th Street and drove to the city park where I had taken my little kids many times to play ball, fly kites, learned to ride bikes, and watch the rodeo. Largely unchanged, the park visit brought back dozens of wonderful memories.

I continued to our old house on 4th Street and then passed by the City Building and Sherriff’s Department. Heading east from the County Building I was looking for the Duckwall-ALCO corporate offices.

Full Circle Moments flashed in my mind as I drove down Cottage Avenue, remembering my first day as an excited new employee, to the day I resigned, and dozens of memories in-between. I was unprepared for what awaited me as I approached 401 Cottage Ave.

It was gone. Duckwall-ALCO Stores was no more. They were out of business and the building appeared to be run-down and abandoned. I pulled into the parking lot and stopped, staring in disbelief at what I was seeing.

I processed a strange mix of emotions, ranging from sadness to relief. A quick Internet search revealed their demise. On October 12, 2014, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy citing “increased competition” and “decreased customer traffic“. Going out of business sales at all locations started on November 21, 2014 and the last ALCO store was closed in March 2015.

The Meaning

It probably comes as no surprise that my decision to leave Abilene in pursuit of money and career came at a cost. More job opportunities came along, more salary, and new cities. I chased after those things, and my kids paid a price by growing up in multiple schools and communities, stretching from Kansas, to Nebraska, to Oregon, and back to Kansas again.

It wasn’t until coming back to Missouri in 2003, near one of my own childhood homes, that I finally put down some roots and settled for any length of time. See related story, Full Circle – A Homecoming Story.

Over the years, I often wondered what my life, or the lives of my children, would have looked like had I stayed in Abilene. Sometimes I regretted the choice and questioned whether it was the right decision.

I will never forget one of those moments of doubt. It was within the first year of leaving Abilene. The job I had pursued was a 6-month contract-for-hire situation, but the company declined to convert me to an employee at the end of the contract. So, in March of 1996 I was looking for another job. Due to the quick nature of the situation I had no time to be choosy, so I leaped at the first opportunity and ended-up in Omaha, Nebraska working for another small-town merchandiser called Pamida.

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene
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Long story short, several things went poorly during the transition. That series of events left me feeling a bit distraught. I called my mom on a dark and stormy evening seeking her wise counsel. As usual, she offered some helpful encouragement, even though I still felt defeated and wished I had never left Abilene.

A couple days later, a small package arrived in the mail. It was from mom. After opening the package, tears filled my eyes. It was a powerful reminder of something I had apparently forgotten. A small trinket, a token you might carry in your pocket, that simply stated, “Thy Will Be Done”.

Eye of the Beholder - Full Circle - Abilene
I’ve carried this in my pocket for nearly 30 years. Thanks Mom.

Mom knew I needed that.

In my moment of doubt, I needed to remember that the goodness of God’s Will greatly exceeds all the best laid plans I could ever conceive for myself.

I only need to Trust in Him and step forward in faith.

Proverbs 16:9 + Proverbs 3:5

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That day in 2016 sitting in the empty Duckwall-ALCO parking lot processing the Full Circle Moment felt like a small confirmation that I made a good choice in 1995. It was quite apparent that I would have been leaving anyway by 2014, if not sooner, as the company folded.

I think it is a rare thing to get an answer like that in this life. We are often required to step forward into an unknown future, hoping for the best, never truly knowing if a different path is a right or wrong one.

Even with the revelation I received that day in 2016, who’s to say that the path I chose was right or wrong? If I had stayed, there could have been dozens of other options and events laid before me. I could drive myself crazy pondering the possibilities, so I rest in the comfort of my mom’s little pocket charm.

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The key takeaway for me in this Full Circle story is, I can’t look back on the life decisions I’ve made with a sense of regret or guilt. When I take the time to pray, consult with the people I trust, and make an informed decision, then I should consider it “right and good”, regardless of the outcome.

I’ve learned that there are very valid reasons for God to guide me on a certain path. Whether that reason is revealed to me or not, I must trust in the goodness of His plan for my life and step forward on faith.

Thy Will Be Done

Isaiah 41:10

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Steve Coryell