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Most of the Union High Class of ’19 is college-bound, thanks to a native son

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UNION • Byron D. Trott, a banker-entrepreneur-philanthropist extraordinaire, rarely returns to his hometown. But when he does, he comes bearing educational gifts. Thirty years ago, he started a scholar-athlete program that paved the way for 60 Union High School students to attend college.

In 2016, Trott decided to go much bigger. Through his charitable foundation and with the support of several families for whom he has provided financial guidance, Trott launched rootEd Alliance. It is a $10 million, three-year project aimed at increasing the number of rural students who will pursue a postsecondary education.

The program got rolling in August 2018 at high schools in Union, Cape Girardeau, Lebanon, Marshfield, Poplar Bluff and Warrenton. Also participating are three high schools in Lawrence County, Tenn., where rootEd has partnered with the Ayers Foundation, founded by Tennessee native and banker Jim Ayers and his wife, Janet. A total of 2,000 students are involved.

On Thursday, Trott, Union High class of ’77, returned to his alma mater to meet the students who have benefited from his program and to urge them to follow the trail he has blazed. Dressed in business casual — a blue blazer and starched white shirt open at the collar — Trott stood at a lectern in the school gym and gazed at the classes of 2019 and ’20 sitting in the bleachers to his right. He wore a lapel pin with a “#1,” signifying that he was in the first generation of his family to attend college, and so did many of the youngsters in the bleachers. There they found common ground.

“The future must seem a bit daunting to you as it did to me,” Trott began. “You are going to make new friends, meet new people. But always you will build on the foundation that you built here with your family and friends.”

In many ways, Union is not the same town that Trott left in 1977 on his way to the University of Chicago and then on to become a maker of billion-dollar deals, and founder of BDT & Co., a merchant bank that provides advice and long-term capital to help family- and founder-led businesses.

Trott remembered Union in his day as a Friday-night-lights kind of town, with social activities revolving around football and basketball games (Trott starred as a quarterback, defensive back and punter). He has fond memories of hanging out with his pals at the local pizza joint, and the single-screen cinema.

Nowadays, you can find a cineplex nearby, a Walmart, and an array of franchise restaurants. You can also find much more poverty, broken homes, depression and despair.

Amy Kain has watched the town change over the last two decades as she served in various roles at the school before taking over as principal three years ago. Kain has three guidance counselors on staff, but the work they do with the 900 students is more like that of social workers. They counsel students whose parents are addicted to opioids, who are jobless, or in some cases, homeless. Nearly 40 percent of the high school’s student body are on the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program, a poverty indicator. So college has not been top of mind for many students. They figure they don’t have the grades to get a scholarship or they’d have to borrow a boatload of money, and then there all those forms they’d have to fill out with no one to help. Why even bother?

Even so, Kain’s school has done solid work in getting students moving toward postsecondary education with about 60 percent going to a community college or four-year program over the last several years. That’s close to the state average.

But this year is different: Nearly 90 percent of the class of 2019 will get a postsecondary education, thanks in large part to rootEd. The program added two additional guidance counselors to Union High this academic year. They were assigned to focus all their time on getting students on track to go to college.

“It’s all about helping kids understand the need; and guiding them through the process and then figuring out how to pay for it,” said Noa Meyer, a managing director at BDT, who oversees the rootEd Alliance. “Because so many are the first generation to go to college, they don’t even know where to begin.”

And college, Meyer maintains, is even more important these days. Research shows that by 2020, four out of five jobs that pay middle-class wages will require an education beyond high school. Other studies show that in rural areas only 26 percent of students will graduate with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.

Tristin Rybak, a Union High senior, changed his mind about a dozen times concerning what he was going to do after high school. Maybe he’d go to college, but maybe he’d become a plumber like his dad.  By doing that, he figured he’d make a decent wage starting right away and he wouldn’t take on a lot of debt for school.

Tristin met with rootEd’s college and career counselor Haley Soetebier almost every week to discuss his future, and in the process Soetebier helped Tristin work out a plan to consider college in an affordable way. He visited three campuses in Missouri, some more than once, and finally decided on attending the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg where he plans on becoming a software engineer (though, of course, he could change his mind yet again).

Braden Watson, who scored a 32 on his ACT, was probably going to go to college no matter what. But with the assistance of Braden’s counselor, his parents, Paige and Jeff Watson, are going to be able to send their son to the University of Chicago, Trott’s alma mater, and maybe he’ll have just as bright a future.

“I had no idea that I could get into a top school like the University of Chicago,” Braden said. Braden is thinking about using a degree in economics to become an agent or financial adviser to professional athletes. He doubts he will return to Union to live, but adds, “I will never forget my roots.”

In that, he is echoing Byron Trott. Trott’s father, David, never got to go to college. Immediately after finishing high school, he enlisted in the Army and six months later found himself at the Battle of the Bulge. He returned home to become a telephone line repairman and with his wife, Barbara, raised Byron and three daughters, all of whom went to college, with three earning postgraduate degrees.

Byron forged a successful career as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs and later with BDT, which he founded in 2009. On his client list at BDT (and supporting rootEd) are names familiar to St. Louisans including the Taylor family, the Kemper family, David Steward, and Emily Rauh Pulitzer.

With all that head-spinning success, Trott told the Union High students that nearly every day and in every meeting, he taps into something he learned in Union from his parents, his teachers and his friends.

“Work hard, dream big and find something you love to do,” he told the students. “Then come back and give back. Do not forget your roots. You can have a huge impact on this town.”

Editor’s note: Tristin Rybak worked with rootEd’s college and career counselor Haley Soetebier. An earlier version incorrectly named another counselor.

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