Holidays and Fort Hays State University sporting events are nearly one and the same for the Mark and Patti (Covington) Griffin family.
Avid sports fans, the Griffins have worked at their alma mater for 31 years. Their two sons virtually grew up on campus and began attending Tiger sporting events and other campus activities from the time they were babies.
While Homecoming is one of those events where both sides of their families usually meet up, Homecoming 2019 will have a special twist to it.
The Covington/Griffin family has been named Honorary Alumni Family of the Year for 2019. The distinction, in its third year, is sponsored by the FHSU Alumni Association.
About 25 family members, ranging from 2 to 81 years, are expected to ride in the 11 a.m. parade down Main Street Saturday on a trailer behind the university car carrying FHSU President Tisa Mason.
“I am really looking forward to it,” said Dixie Covington, Patti’s mother, who lives in Galva with her husband, Don. “Oktoberfest, the parade, tailgating, everything.”
Nearly 40 members of Mark’s and Patti’s extended family have attended FHSU, including their sons, Thayne and Kellen.
Thayne took some classes at FHSU while in high school but opted for a career in actuarial science and graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. However, his wife, the former Kristen Fleharty, is an FHSU grad. They plan to come to Hays for the weekend and celebrate with their 2-year-old son, Parker.
“He still considers himself a Tiger,” Patti said of her oldest son, whose wedding was held in the Fort Hays State quad. When Thayne was in college at Drake, he often made the three-hour drive to Kansas City to watch the FHSU basketball teams in the MIAA tournament.
Both Kellen and his wife, Quillen (Eichhorn), are Fort Hays State alumni. And all three of Patti’s siblings and their spouses earned degrees from FHSU.
The ones who started it all more than 60 years ago will be present for the weekend festivities. In fact, Stan and Neva Griffin called off a trip to Tennessee when they learned their family was being honored this weekend.
Stan and Neva were high school sweethearts in Bunker Hill. After graduating in a class of seven in 1956, they came to Fort Hays State to further their education when their principal, Elmer Dougherty – also a successful farmer in the area – paid their tuition for the first year.
Stan chuckles when thinking about the cost of tuition back then: $55 a semester. It was the jump start he needed to get a college education. The couple was married in 1957, and Neva decided to join the workforce so Stan could finish his degree in teacher education.
After several years in the education field, Stan landed a position as manager of the computer center at a bank in Kansas City. He worked there for 32 years before retiring in 1999.
All the while, Stan and Neva have remained involved with Fort Hays State. Stan served on the board of directors for the Alumni Association for four years, and the couple regularly attends alumni events in the Kansas City area.
“I have a buddy who graduated from Pittsburg State, but I’ve converted him to a Fort Hays State fan,” Stan says proudly.
Patti’s dad is a retired Southern Baptist minister, so her family moved around a lot during her grade school days.
After graduating from Northern Valley High School in 1983, Patti followed her older sister, Pam, to Fort Hays State. Mark chose FHSU mostly because his cousins Ken and Kevin Shaffer had made the decision earlier. Both Ken and Kevin are alums.
He also liked the wide open spaces and has fond memories of making trips from Kansas City to Bunker Hill and Russell to visit relatives while growing up.
“I have always loved the country more than the city,” Mark said. “I love going back to KC to visit, but I sure like living out here.”
Both Mark and Patti were involved with intramurals as FHSU students and actually met on the softball fields. The gal from the tiny town of Almena and the city boy from Kansas City married in 1987, a week after their FHSU graduation.
“The rest, I guess,” Mark said, “is history.”
That strong FHSU family tradition proved to be just getting started.
To date, 34 FHSU degrees have been earned by family members, including numerous first cousins and their spouses.
Mark graduated with a degree in computer information systems, and Patti’s bachelor’s was in communication.
They moved to the Kansas City area after graduation but returned to Hays a year later when Mark was offered a job as a system administrator in FHSU’s computing center.
The Griffins were so excited about returning to their alma mater that when the phone call came to offer Mark the position, Patti answered and accepted the job for Mark.
“I’d lived a lot of places during my lifetime,” she said. “I was eager to get back to Hays, closer to family. And I knew Fort Hays State would be a great place to work.”
Patti took a temporary job on campus and began work on her master’s. She then earned her Ph.D. from Kansas State University and soon afterward was hired as the first director of academic advising at FHSU, a position she has held ever since. She is also an associate professor of communication studies.
Mark continued to advance in the computing center and now is assistant vice president and chief information officer for Technology Services. He also is a familiar face in other campus arenas. After volunteering to help run the scoreboard at a Tiger football game back in 1988, the job was his permanently. He runs the shot clock for FHSU basketball games as well.
Patti has also been involved with numerous activities, including advisor for Tiger Wild, member and president of the University Athletic Association and a board member for academic advising networks on the state, regional and global levels.
Both have served as co-chairs for the FHSU Foundation Campus Drive and volunteer for various events on campus.
Kellen said he has fond memories of Fort Hays State, dating all the way back to childhood when he often would come to campus after school and hang out in his parents’ offices.
Along about his junior year in high school, Kellen decided he wanted to become a teacher. He knew the perfect place to pursue an education degree.
“The education program at Fort Hays State is phenomenal,” said Kellen, now a math teacher at Shawnee Heights High School east of Topeka. “So it was the perfect place to be.”
It still is. Kellen is working on his master’s in mathematics education through FHSU’s Virtual College and on-campus classes during the summer months.
The Griffins have seen a lot of change at Fort Hays State through four decades, but the constant is the people.
“Good, solid, Fort Hays State people,” Mark started slowly, then paused when he got choked up.
“You hear people use the word family a lot when they are talking about Fort Hays State,” he said. “But it’s true. This really is a family.”