With his compact and solid build, it is easy to imagine a younger version of this man ruling on the wrestling mat. As a student at Vandalia High School in the 1970s, Bob Culbertson, was its first wrestler to win a state trophy. He would go on to build a neighborhood club into the Illinois Kids’ Wrestling Foundation – a pipeline for the dynasty of wrestling talent at Vandalia over many years.
Now, at an age when many of his peers are retiring and focused on relaxing, Bob has a new project. He is a founding donor of Forging our Future, a campaign to raise funds for a new sports complex and upgrades that will ensure the Vandals have state-ofthe-art facilities for competition and training in a variety of sports.
Bob turned down many offers to coach Vandalia wrestling over the years. He says, “I didn’t need all the hype.” He preferred to work with younger kids---helping them to develop a love for the sport, the discipline of hard work, and the joy in seeing their own improvement. That was his goal when he started the wrestling club with his two sons, that they would work hard and improve. As a young dad, he thought wrestling — which requires patience, strategy, and hard work — would be a good sport to teach his boys and their friends solid values. It would also keep them busy and out of trouble.
Susan Culbertson chimes in with enthusiastic agreement. She notes with pride, that the work ethic instilled in them has served her children well out in the world. Son Jacob works for the University of Illinois and son Brian got his PhD and works at a food testing lab. As for daughter Julie (who works in IT for the Vandalia School District), “There is nothing that she can’t do, and if she can’t do it she figures it out.”
Bob grew up on a farm just outside of town and went to school in a two-room schoolhouse. Hard times forced the family to sell the farm and move to town. His father went on to a new career as a truck driver and was a member of the Teamsters Union. Young Bob, meanwhile, roamed all around his new neighborhood. He made friends and played lots of different sandlot sports. His parents eventually ran a skating rink in their spare time. Bob met Susan through his brother, at church camp. Susan chuckles, and notes: “I got the good brother!”
Knowing what a pillar of the community Bob has been, someone who has been both shaped by it and helped to shape it in return, we are curious to know what it has meant to him. Bob shares a local saying about Vandalia: “It’s a great place to live, but a tough place to make a living.” He talks about how the economic uncertainty of farming affected him, and the town as a whole. Even though he went into a non-agricultural business — started with his brother during a tough recession — their volume of work was always closely tied to agriculture. If farmers don’t have a good season, there is less money all around. That’s a key factor that affects so many small rural towns.
Nonetheless, Bob has always been willing to take a risk and invest in people. The business had its lean years. Bob talks about “starting with nothing” and doing a lot of “mission work.” That was his and his brother’s slang for “working your butt off for no money.” With time, the business grew and prospered for more than thirty years. He is proud of the fact that he was able to provide jobs for his employees and take care of his own family. When we asked if it was still a family business, Bob joked: “Yes, but not our family’s. My kids didn’t want to run the business, they ran from it!”
Now, Bob and Susan are using their hard-earned savings to help launch the Forging our Future fund. We asked what it feels like to write a $100,000 check. Bob demurred and said, “Money doesn’t mean anything unless its used.” He is clear that he doesn’t want his money making some anonymous investor rich, and he and Susan don’t go in for fancy cars or travel to five-star resorts. Instead, they want to invest their money in the kids of Vandalia. Their gift has inspired others in the community to give as well, and he is not afraid to keep “knocking on doors,” to help the project reach its goal. He’s counting on everyone who can to chip in and help the kids-- -they are the best investment any town can make.